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Immigration Act 2016

Volume 783: debated on Wednesday 19 July 2017


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement delivered in the other place by my right honourable friend the Minister for Immigration.

“This Government are fully committed to helping and supporting the most vulnerable children. The UK has contributed significantly to hosting, supporting and protecting vulnerable children affected by the migration crisis. This is part of our wider response of taking 23,000 people from the region. We have already granted asylum, or another form of leave, to over 8,000 children. Local authorities across the country are currently supporting over 4,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

The children transferred under Section 67 are being cared for by local authorities across the UK. We take our responsibility to those children very seriously, and safeguarding them is of paramount importance.

Following consultation with local authorities, the Government have set the number of children who will be transferred under the Dubs scheme at 480. We have invited referrals of eligible children from France, Greece and Italy. Our officials at the Home Office have visited France, Greece and Italy in recent months and have put in place processes to identify and transfer eligible children.

In the last week I myself have spoken to my counterparts in Greece and Italy specifically on this issue and I will follow this up in face-to-face meetings in both those countries next week. It is important to remember that the process for transferring children must be implemented in line with each individual member state’s national laws. All transfers of children to the UK must be carried out safely and with the best interests of those children at the centre of all decisions regarding transfer.

The ongoing work to transfer children under Section 67 is in addition to our other commitments. We continue to work closely with member states and relevant partners to ensure that children with family in the UK can be transferred quickly and safely.

Our approach continues to be to take refugees directly from conflict regions, providing refugees with a more direct and safe route to the UK, rather than risking a hazardous journey to Europe. We are committed to resettling 23,000 people from the region, and ours are some of the largest and longest-running resettlement schemes in the EU.

So far the UK has resettled more than 7,000 people under the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme and the vulnerable children resettlement scheme. Our schemes allow children to be resettled with their family members, thereby discouraging them from making the perilous journeys to Europe alone.

In closing, it is worth noting that families continue to arrive from the region. One family has arrived today; just yesterday 199 individuals arrived from the region; and 80 are due to arrive next week. This is all part of the Government’s approach to helping the most vulnerable”.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question.

I have previously asked—without success—for the Government to provide the figures on the number of further unaccompanied children that local authorities have said they have the capacity to take in the current financial year, 2017-18, under Section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016, on the basis that government funding at the current level per child will be continued for further unaccompanied children coming here under the Dubs amendment in the current financial year. If I am again to be unsuccessful in getting an answer to that question, is it because, in the Government’s view, that question is now irrelevant because it appears in the response to the UQ that the Government have now put a cap of 480 on the number of children who can come here under the Dubs amendment? This is surely the same figure applicable at the time of the PNQ on 27 April 2017, in the light of the addition of the further 130 children as a result of a government administrative error, when the Government also said,

“we have not closed the Dubs scheme”.—[Official Report, 27/4/17; col. 1444.]

Surely, in the light of the response to the UQ, which appears to apply a cap of 480, that claim made on 27 April no longer stands up, and if I am right in saying that, frankly, that is a disgrace.

My Lords, regarding the cap, the specified number was set out in legislation. It was initially 350, which was based on the consultation we carried out with local authorities. I have apologised before at this Dispatch Box—I apologise again—in that there was an administrative error and the figure then rose to 480. That figure is based on the number of children that local authorities can accommodate. It is right that we have not closed the Dubs scheme, which remains open. There are numbers to be filled and therefore the Dubs scheme is not closed.

My Lords, we are receiving conflicting statements from the Government and local authorities. Will the Minister update the House on her department’s working relationship with local authorities based on, first, evidence presented recently to the High Court by Help Refugees that local authorities had the capacity to accept a far greater number of unaccompanied minors than have currently been accepted? Secondly, freedom of information requests have shown that local councils have voluntarily offered to accept 1,572 more children in addition to those they already support. Does the Minister acknowledge this? In the light of this information, will the Government reopen Dubs and take their fair share of these children, who are at such risk that, according to Oxfam, 28 children a day are going missing from Italy alone?

The Government have consulted fully with local authorities. We held roadshows up and down the country. The FOI response to which the noble Baroness has referred talks, I think, about spare capacity for 784 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. These figures are entirely at odds with our consultation and do not reflect capacity among local authorities. Over recent weeks and months there has been a lot of misunderstanding about the purpose of the 0.07% threshold to which I assume she is referring. It is neither a target for the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children that we would expect to see in a local authority area, nor is it an assessment of a local authority’s capacity to accommodate unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. It is an indication of when a local authority is caring for a disproportionate number of such children, as some local authorities are, and when we would expect to see them transfer away from that authority. Drawing conclusions about local authority capacity by automatically assigning them from their 0.07% threshold is a flawed methodology which fails to reflect existing capacity.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the co-chairman of the report on unaccompanied minors in Europe, which our committee launched last week. I want to make two points. Northern Ireland and Scotland have both offered to take children but we were told in evidence that neither of them has been invited to take any at all. I hope the Minister has read our report, which talks about children being teargassed daily by the riot police in northern France and the terrible conditions in both Italy and Greece. I wonder if she and others in the Government can see that, according to the evidence we received, no effort whatever is being made to identify Dubs children in Calais and Dunkirk or indeed in Italy and Greece. Moreover, no effort at all is being made to identify any of the children with an entitlement under Dublin III. This is a catastrophe for these children and I feel passionate about it. However, nothing seems to be being done.

I recognise the passion of the noble and learned Baroness, and she and I have talked about this on a number of occasions. I have read her report. The first thing I should say about the treatment by police of children in France is a point I have made in the House before: the prime responsibility for unaccompanied children in Europe lies with the authorities of the countries in which the children are present. We continue to work with our European and international partners to reach a solution to the migrant crisis, and the UK has contributed significantly to that in hosting, supporting and protecting the most vulnerable children. We have a very strong track record on co-operating with France to manage the situation in Calais and protect the shared border. The safest way for eligible children to be transferred to the UK is by claiming asylum in France. Children with qualifying family members in the UK will be transferred to the UK to claim asylum where it is in their best interests to do so. Also, more children will be referred under Section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016.

My Lords, more than 25,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Italy last year. The cut-off date for Section 67 was 20 March 2016, which means that none of the children who arrived in Italy after that date could be helped. Given that no children have yet been transferred from Greece and Italy under the scheme, will the Government consider resetting the cut-off date?

The most reverend Primate will appreciate that people are killed when they travel from the region to places such as France. It is really worth the House noting that those who benefit most from refugees travelling to places in Europe are the people traffickers—the unscrupulous thugs who bring those people at great peril across the sea, many of whom die on the way. That is why we are so keen to help children and families in the region, rather than have them make that perilous journey. A change in the date, I am sad to say, would act as that pull factor.

Can I ask the Minister for a simple answer to a simple question? Once we have reached the total of 480 children that she says the Government will accept under Section 67, is that the end of it or will the Government respond to local authorities which are still saying that they are willing to take more? It is a simple yes or no.

I hope that I can give the noble Lord a simple answer: the figure of 480 is a specified number, which the noble Lord will appreciate because it is the number that we agreed. The noble Lord well knows that local authorities do not take children just from the Dubs scheme but from other schemes; I know that he appreciates that, and that local authorities are limited by capacity. We are always willing to listen to and take advice from local authorities which feel that their capacity has improved, but I have to say to the noble Lord that we arrived at the specified number and we are bound by local authorities’ capacity.