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Immigration Act 2016: Section 67

Volume 627: debated on Wednesday 19 July 2017

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will update the House on the implementation of section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016.

The Government are fully committed to helping and supporting the most vulnerable children, and we are contributing 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 more than 8,000 children and local authorities across the country are supporting more than 4,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

Children transferred under section 67 are being cared for by local authorities across the country and we and they take our responsibility to those children very seriously. Safeguarding those children is paramount. Following consultation with local authorities, the Government have set the number of children who will be transferred under the scheme at 480. We have invited referrals of eligible children from France, Greece and Italy and our officials at the Home Office have visited those countries in recent months to put in place processes further to identify and transfer eligible children. In the past week I have spoken to my counterparts in Greece and Italy specifically on this issue, and I shall follow that up with face-to-face meetings in both countries next week.

It is important to remember that the processes for transferring children must be implemented in line with each member state’s national laws and all transfers of children to the UK must be carried out safely and with the best interests of the children at the centre of all decisions. The ongoing work to transfer children under section 67 is in addition to our other commitments and 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 our country rather than risking hazardous journeys to Europe. We are committed to resettling 23,000 people from the region and our resettlement schemes are some of the largest and longest-running in the EU. So far, we have 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 perilous journeys to Europe alone.

It is worth noting that families continue to arrive from the region. Just yesterday, 199 individuals arrived and another 80 are due to arrive next week. That is all part of the Government’s approach to helping the most vulnerable.

I thank the Minister for his response, but it seems in the light of fact that those are somewhat hollow words. Before the election, the Government promised they would transfer 480 refugee children from Europe to the UK, but in the other place the Government recently admitted that so far only 200 unaccompanied children have been given sanctuary here. When do the Government expect to fulfil this measly commitment, and will the Minister give us a date today?

I say that it is a measly commitment because the UK should do so much more. Freedom of Information Act requests show that local councils have voluntarily offered to accept 1,572 more children in addition to those they already support. Does the Minister know this? In light of this information, will the Government reopen Dubs and take their fair share?

As summer approaches, more are taking the dangerous crossings across the Mediterranean to reach the safety of European shores. More desperate, refugee children—[Interruption.]

Order. Stop the clock. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman but we cannot have two sets of exchanges taking place. There is a rather unseemly exchange between the hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) and the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), who are gesticulating at each other and in obvious dispute. They must calm themselves and listen to the Demosthenian eloquence of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), whose question this is.

That is understandable, Mr Speaker; this subject raises passions, and rightly so.

Summer approaches and more are taking the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to reach European shores. More desperate refugee children without anyone looking after them will arrive in Europe, yet the Government have said that they will not consider taking any child under Dubs who arrived after their arbitrary cut-off date of 20 March 2016. In the light of the delays, which are the Government’s fault, will they extend that cut-off date, which is as heartless as it is pointless?

Finally, I have visited the camps in Greece and elsewhere, which neither the Home Secretary nor the Prime Minister, who is, of course, the previous Home Secretary, have. I cannot forget what I have seen. I have met those children who, through no fault of their own, find their lives on pause as Ministers here choose to ignore them. How many children have been taken from Greece under the Dubs amendment to date? Have the UK Government even signed a memorandum of understanding with Greece to get these transfers under way? I know of two young people who signed a consent form to be transferred under Dubs more than a year ago. They are still stuck in Greece.

The horrific truth is that the longer this goes on the more likely it is that these children will go missing and fall into the evil hands of traffickers. According to Oxfam, 28 children every single day are going missing in Italy alone. Will the Government step up, or continue to ignore the plight of these desperate children?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman’s comments are based on pretty much a series of false premises. I remind him that, as I have said, we have a range of schemes out there and are working to bring 23,000 people over. While he bandies around numbers I politely ask him to bear in mind that behind every number he talks about—some of which were wrong—there is a child. It is important for us to ensure that those children get the care and support they need in the right time and the right place.

The hon. Gentleman talks about timelines, and he seems to forget that Italy and Greece are nation states, as is France. We must work around the timelines for them, too. He mentioned the FOI request concerning local authorities, which I am afraid is simply wrong. We consulted local authorities, which is what we said we would do when the legislation was in front of the House. That is what has led to the figure of 480, and the FOI request he is talking about does not consider what local authorities can provide. It is about the 0.7%[Official Report, 5 September 2017, Vol. 628, c. 1MC.] threshold, which is an entirely different calculation, so perhaps he should go away and look further at that.

We are very clear that we must ensure that we do not create a pull factor while at the same time doing the right thing, as we have done with the £2.46 billion of support that makes us one of the biggest contributors and covers the biggest humanitarian aid project this country has ever conducted, to look after the people who need our care the most. Instead of playing politics with children’s lives, we should get on with looking after them and I wish the hon. Gentleman would join us in that.

I urge the Minister to keep the deadline in place. It is incredibly important that we do not encourage any more families to send their children on dangerous journeys. We should continue to take children directly from the region—directly from the camps—so that we can ensure they arrive safely. Encouraging the thought that if children get to Europe they will be able to stay is exactly what encourages the dangerous journeys that lead to their dying. I urge the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) to think carefully before he presses that course on the Government.

My right hon. Friend, with his experience, is absolutely right: we must ensure that we do not create a pull factor. It must be remembered that under our schemes we have already brought over some 7,000[Official Report, 5 September 2017, Vol. 628, c. 1MC.] children from the region. I remind the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) that the scheme is not closed. We are still working, and next week I shall go to Italy and Greece to talk to Ministers. The most vulnerable people are those who cannot afford to pay human traffickers—the children in the region, in Lebanon and in Jordan. They should be our focus, to ensure we do not, as my right hon. Friend said, create a pull factor.

The House understands the Government’s preference to take unaccompanied children directly from the region. I have visited the camps in France and Greece. The Minister needs to be reminded that the children are already there, often living in horrible conditions and at the mercy of traffickers and sexual exploitation. How many children in 2017-18 will come into this country under section 67? How many children will come in under Dublin? How long, on average, has each case taken? What is the future of close family reunion once we leave the European Union? Will the Government consider expanding UK immigration rights so that a child’s right to family reunion in the broad sense is in no way diminished, or will the Government simply walk away from their moral obligations?

The right hon. Lady’s final point does not do her, this House or this country justice. We—councils, charity groups and individuals—should be proud of the phenomenal work being done across the country, including the £1 million community sponsorship scheme that the Home Secretary announced last night, to welcome the most vulnerable people. It is right that we look to see who are the most vulnerable—who cannot afford to pay human traffickers, and who need our support in the region—rather than those who are in European countries. We are still bringing people over under the agreements with European countries, but I remind the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale that we must work according to the rules and laws in these countries—they are nation states. Our position on what will happen once we leave the European Union has been clear. The fact that we are running the biggest humanitarian project this country has seen highlights the Government’s determination to do the right thing. We will continue to seek to do so and to fulfil our moral duty to those who need our help most.

The protestations of Opposition Members would have more credibility if they acknowledged the huge effort and huge resources that the Government have put in to date. I too have been to Athens to see the camps and the fantastic work being done there, but there is a criticism: it is taking too long to process and assess children who have a right to be here. Will the Minister acknowledge that post-Brexit, when presumably we will come out of the Dublin III scheme, there will be a problem with children under the family reunion scheme? Can we ensure that they will still be matched with relatives beyond their parents, because many of them will have lost their parents but will have siblings, uncles and others with whom they may be safely and appropriately placed?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I appreciate the time he spent explaining to me what he saw at the camps, which I shall visit next week. He is right: all of us in this country should be proud of the finance and focus we provide, but for every 3,000 people we bring over and help we could be helping 800,000 people in the region. We therefore must be very clear about our focus. As I said, we are clear that post-Brexit we shall want to continue to do the right thing for vulnerable people in the region. I shall be happy to work with him to deliver that.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing this question. I make it clear to the Minister that what the hon. Member said was not based on false premises. I am able to say that because last week I attended the launch of a report from the Human Trafficking Foundation, following an independent inquiry into separated and unaccompanied minors in Europe. The inquiry found that UK Ministers have done

“as little as legally possible”

to help unaccompanied children who have fled war and conflict in their home nations; have turned away from a humanitarian crisis that “would not be tolerable” to the British public if they were more aware of it; and that by failing to offer safe passage are “unquestionably” fuelling both people trafficking and smuggling. Those are not my words but the findings of an independent inquiry. What will the Minister do about it? [Interruption.] There is no point in shouting at me because the Minister and his colleagues do not like the independent inquiry’s findings. The British public deserve to know about this. What steps are the Government taking to resolve the blockages in the transfer of Dubs children, which we voted for in the House last year, thinking there would be 3,000 transfers? When do they expect the transfers to begin?

Transfers have been happening, and we are determined to deliver on exactly what we set out. We will continue to do so—it is part of the 23,000 people, and it should be remembered that we have brought over 7,000[Official Report, 5 September 2017, Vol. 628, c. 2MC.] children already. I encourage more people to look at what she refers to as an independent report, one of the co-authors of which is a recently retired Labour Member of Parliament. Fiona Mactaggart’s foreword makes many accusations and statements that have no evidence base whatsoever. I disagree with the report, but my point about the freedom of information request and several of the other statements that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale made being based on false premises still stands.

As well as accepting refugees into this country the United Kingdom is the second largest donor to the crisis following the United States and has given more than the rest of the European Union combined. I support the Government having a holistic, comprehensive approach. Will my right hon. Friend continue to commit the Government to providing the right help in the right places?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is important that we focus our help on the most vulnerable in the places that most need that support, while doing what we can as part of our work with our European partners to support those whom we have agreed to support.

The Minister knows that helping children in the region and those in Europe and already here is not an either/or. Parliament told the Government to help lone child refugees in Europe when it passed the Dubs amendment last year. I know the Government did not want to agree to it, but it was passed. The way in which they have narrowed the criteria, dragged their feet, and failed even to count councils’ offers properly is shameful. Will he confirm that they have helped only 200 children under the Dubs amendment, despite the fact that councils have offered nearly 500 places, and that there are tens of thousands of child refugees still alone in Europe? Italy and Greece cannot cope with what they are having to deal with. It is shameful that all he has managed to do is send a few officials to Italy and Greece to try to arrange a few procedures for the future, when this has been going on for years. Stop the warm words about helping the most vulnerable children and actually get on with it, as Parliament said the Government should.

We are clear about wanting to give children the right support and ensuring they have the support network to be an important and valued part of our community. It is important that we do so within what local authorities can provide, bearing in mind the restrictions and capacity they have. In 2016 we granted asylum or some form of leave to over 8,000 children, and since 2010 we have done so for some 42,000 children. We are doing our bit. We want to continue to do that work. Other countries have their own rules and regulations. I am sure the right hon. Lady will appreciate from her previous role that we have to work with them and with what works with the laws. We shall continue to do so, which is why I will visit Italy and Greece to meet my counterparts next week.

I know that everybody is incredibly passionate about this issue, but I hope that we can collectively be proud of what the country as a whole has contributed to help with the refugee crisis in Syria, because it is tremendous. I am glad that the Minister is going to visit the camps; that does rather shift someone’s perception about how the picture forms overall. The Government and I have different views on Dubs, and I still maintain that more capacity is available in our councils and country to help.

Further to what my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, I am particularly concerned about what will happen to Dublin III as we move towards this brave new Brexit world. How many children have come to the UK this year under Dublin III already? How will we make sure that the legislation is embedded in our own laws when we leave the EU?

I take my hon. Friend’s point about local authorities. We will continue to work with them; our numbers are based on the information that they have given us through roadshows and conversations we have had directly. We will continue to look at the numbers that they feed in, as we deal with children and bring them over within our schemes and commitments.

On Dublin going forward, as I said earlier I can give an assurance that we are determined to fulfil our commitments. Obviously, as we go through the negotiations on leaving the European Union, it is too soon to say exactly what technical format that will take. However, we are determined to stick with our moral and ethical duty as we continue to provide support to the people who need it most, through the Dublin agreement.

The Minister gets the message: the whole House wants the process to be enacted as speedily as possible. May I take him back to one of the points made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) about the Mediterranean summer crisis that will unfold? What additional help is being given to enable those with some responsibility in Libya to prevent boats from setting off on the Mediterranean? Those journeys will result only in people—children, especially—dying before they reach the mainland.

The right hon. Gentleman has vast experience in this area and he makes an important point. It is very important that in this discussion we do not lose sight of what continues to happen in the Mediterranean. We are working closely with member state authorities and all our partners, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other non-governmental organisations, to agree what more we can do in that region.

The Prime Minister made a statement and announcement after the last EU Council meeting. We will continue to deliver on that, to make sure that we do two things: that we do not create a pull factor and that we give a clear message that people should not make that treacherous journey. That is why it is so important that we continue our phenomenal work with the £2.46 billion spend, along with the £10 million from the Department for International Development, to work with people in the region and make sure that things there are as safe and flexible as possible.

As my right hon. Friend has set out, tackling this problem at source and dealing with the trafficking are crucial. Will he outline what the British security services and police are doing with European counterparts to track down, arrest and prosecute people traffickers who wish to profit directly by exploiting the situation?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important that we continue to give a clear message about the atrocious and completely unacceptable behaviour of the disgraceful traffickers out there who continue to ply their despicable trade. The European Migrant Smuggling Centre was formed in February this year in response to the increase in the number of irregular migrants. We continue to work with our partners, along with Europol and our National Crime Agency, to focus on and drive out that form of trafficking, as well as the organised crime that thrives around it. There has to be a clear message at every stage. That despicable behaviour is not acceptable and it needs to end.

As the Minister will know from the response of the High Court to the judicial review of the consultation on the places available for children in the UK, section 67 is explicitly about families in Europe. May I ask him about a specific case that I wrote to his office about more than a week ago, involving an incredibly vulnerable Syrian family in Lille who have been wrongly refused the right to come to the UK under the Dublin regulations? I have not yet had even an acknowledgment from his office of receipt of that correspondence. Will the Minister meet me to urgently review this case of a suicidal mother and her young children and discuss how we can improve how people claim asylum and come to the UK, so that it is not only the smugglers who meet them in Calais?

As the hon. Lady will appreciate, I am not going to comment on a particular case today, but as soon as I leave the Dispatch Box I will chase up the case she mentions and why she has not had a response. I will make sure that she gets one as soon as possible.

Last year, I visited the Zaatari refugee camp on the Syrian border in Jordan. It was clear from conversations with parents that although they did not want to risk their children’s lives across the sea, they would if there were no jobs or education for them. Does the Minister agree that thanks to the UK Government’s 0.7% aid contribution, we are able to keep people well and safe in their own region rather than risking squalor in the European camps?

My hon. Friend’s excellent point highlights why it is so important for us to continue to do that work in the region. We should be proud of the time, effort and money being spent out there and of the work of the charities as well as the Government in making sure that we do everything we can to help people in the region and deal with the challenges at source. In that way, we can prevent people not only from taking the chance to come to places that are not appropriate for them but from making that treacherous journey and giving profit to human traffickers in the first place.

I draw the House’s attention to the fact that I am to be an unpaid director of the Human Trafficking Foundation; that will appear shortly in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

What would the Minister say to Tory-controlled Nottinghamshire County Council, which on Monday suspended support for unaccompanied children despite having places available? One of the senior councillors said that it was because the children come here of their own volition. Is that not simply a disgrace? Is it not also a disgrace that they have turned around and blamed the Government? Is it not about time that the Minister got his act together with his Tory colleagues and stopped unaccompanied children fleeing war and persecution taking the consequences of this disastrous Government policy?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the role that he is about to take up, and I look forward to working with him to do something about what we agree on: driving out human trafficking completely.

I am pleased that a Conservative authority took control of Nottinghamshire County Council a few weeks ago in local elections. I learned many years ago at this Dispatch Box to make sure that I understood the full details and both sides of any particular case before I comment on it. I will look into what the hon. Gentleman said and talk to Nottinghamshire County Council before I comment any further.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) talked of “hollow words”; in fact, the Government’s response has been generous—it is, if I may say so, a typically British generous response to this crisis. Will my right hon. Friend confirm the number of refugees that this country is helping and compare it with the equivalent figures for other EU states?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Just this week, the Home Secretary and I launched and put extra funding into the community support project. We have seen phenomenal work, which people should be proud of, in charities and communities, developing and learning from colleagues from countries around the world such as Canada. I appreciate the time that the Canadian Minister gave us to discuss the issues. My hon. Friend is right: last year alone, we took in more than any other country in Europe. We should be proud of that, but we are clear that we want to build on that. We should be very proud of the fact that we are looking to bring over 23,000 people, to make sure that we are helping the most vulnerable—including the many thousands of children who have already come over and others who will continue to come.

The Minister will have on his desk petitions from children at St Matthew’s Primary School and Moss Park Infants School in my constituency asking him to respect the rights of all refugee children under the United Nations convention on the rights of the child—their right to an education, in particular. What assessment is he really making of the quality and experience of education that children are getting in camps? Is it not time that we brought children here to settle them and ensure that they have the chance to develop a happy and successful childhood?

The hon. Lady is effectively agreeing with the point I made earlier. We are working with local authorities to make sure that when children come over, they are given the right support and the home that they deserve, to help them be an important part of the community and give them a fruitful and fulfilling life.

Is the Minister aware that unaccompanied minors are again congregating in and around Calais? But without the camps, there are now even fewer resources. Safe Passage UK and Refugees Welcome are organising a cross-party group of MPs to go there next month. If the Minister is listening, perhaps he would also like to go there to explain what he and his French counterpart are doing to ensure that children with rights under Dublin or Dubs come to this country for safety, rather than stay on the streets of Calais?

Not only have I met Safe Passage UK and explained the slightly different view that I saw when I was in Calais about 10 days ago, but I am discussing the matter with French authorities and the operators out there.

Many of us do not understand why the Government chose to put a limit on the Dubs scheme based on a rather half-baked consultation with local authorities at one particular time. Why do the Government not continue to engage with local authorities and take proactive steps to increase their capacity to take unaccompanied children, including by implementing fully funded places?

First, that is what the amendment and the legislation said we should do. Secondly, I come back to a point I have made a few times. When we bring people—including families and, most importantly, vulnerable children—over, it is important that we have the facilities and capacity to give them the best start in life. I come back to the point I made earlier. Yes, people will want to play politics with numbers, as some Opposition Members unfortunately do, but the reality is that there is a child behind every number. We need to ensure that if we are bringing children over, we can give them the best possible start. The hon. Gentleman should be proud, as I outlined to the Scottish Minister when I met her last week, that we have already granted asylum or some other form of leave to more than 8,000 children. We have to remember that.

Europol has estimated that more than 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees have disappeared in Europe over the past two years. What steps are the Government taking to address that and to support our EU partners in improving protection for unaccompanied children at risk of trafficking or exploitation?

There are two sides to this. First, we must ensure that we do not create a pull factor that encourages more children and other individuals to take that treacherous journey, which simply helps the profits of the traffickers we all hope to see driven out. It is also about working with our partners and the National Crime Agency, which is working with Europol, to ensure that we track down and catch the people who commit these awful crimes.

Organisations such as Refuweegee are doing a great deal to welcome asylum seekers and refugees to Glasgow. What can the Minister do to ensure that there is adequate funding for local authorities so that those who arrive with nothing get all the support they require to lead a life with dignity?

I fully agree that there is some really good work in Glasgow. I had that conversation with the Scottish Minister last week. A number of local authorities around the country are doing such work. It comes back to the point I have been making: it is very important that we work with local authorities to ensure that they have the capacity, resources, ability and properties to give people who come over the right start in life and the protection, security and safety they deserve.

As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) prepares to step down from the leadership of his party, I thank him not only for his question today, but for his unfailing courtesy and his personal support for the Chair over a very long period, for which I have reason to be very grateful.