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Child Refugees

Volume 778: debated on Thursday 9 February 2017

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why they have decided to close the scheme for unaccompanied child refugees under Section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016.

My Lords, we have not closed the scheme to transfer children under Section 67 of the Immigration Act. The announcement yesterday specified the total number of children that will be transferred pursuant to Section 67, as required by the legislation. Over 200 children have already arrived in the UK under this provision and more children will continue to be transferred from Europe up to the specified number of 350.

My Lords, I must confess that I am slightly puzzled because, if the Government say that there is a specified number of children, then after that total has been reached the scheme has been closed. I remember—it was not long ago—that the Prime Minister, when she was Home Secretary, told me that the Government were prepared to accept the amendment, and on the same day the then Immigration Minister said to me that the Government would accept the letter and the spirit of that amendment. In arbitrarily closing down a scheme without any good reason for doing so, I believe that the Government are in breach of their own commitments.

My Lords, the scheme is not closed. As the noble Lord said, we will be accepting up to the limit of 350 but at this point in time the scheme is not closed.

More children will come. The scheme is not closed. We have to appreciate, and I think noble Lords generally have appreciated, that the capacity of local authorities is limited.

Noble Lords might rubbish that but the capacity of local authorities is limited. We have relied on their good will. It has been an entirely voluntary approach from local authorities, and of course I encourage more local authorities that think that they might have places to come forward. I refer noble Lords to what this Government have done. Up to September 2016 we have provided in this country refuge or other forms of leave for more than 8,000 children. I am very proud of that.

Will my noble friend accept that the concern that has been expressed this morning is not confined to the other side of the House?

Sorry, I thought my noble friend might say something else. Yes, I accept the concern but I can only reiterate what I have already said.

The implication of the Government’s actions, if we go according to the letter of the amendment—Section 67 of the Act—is that local authorities have reached the end of the road and have no further capacity. However, that reasoning is palpably faulty. There are many people who have expressed an interest in helping, as well as churches, other faith groups and local authorities. I know several people who have indicated their willingness to help to a local authority but have had little response. Obviously the Government are quite uninterested in taking in more children.

My Lords, that is absolutely wrong. We have had informal expressions of interest, and if the noble Baroness has the names of those individuals and church and community groups I encourage her to contact us so that we can get matters in train.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the business task force that was set up after the Syrian donor conference to provide jobs and help families and the dispossessed in the region, to prevent them making the perilous journey to Europe. The Government have to be congratulated on the work they are doing there. When the number of 450 is reached, will the Government still look at the discretionary clauses under Dublin which allow countries to take in the most vulnerable people? I am particularly thinking of mothers with babies and the victims of traffickers.

Yes, the people to whom my noble friend refers in the region are the most vulnerable people on the globe. We do not close our doors to people who genuinely seek refuge in this country. Up to September last year, we gave asylum or other forms of leave to 8,000 children.

Will the Minister explain to us where the figure of 350 came from; what consultations and calculations underpin it; and whether her request that others volunteer from the local authorities means that, if such representations and offers are made, the Government will revise that figure of 350?

The noble Lord asks a valuable question. We do not stop consulting local authorities. Of course if local authorities or community sponsorship groups were to come forward, we would certainly consider that. The figure of 350—in fact, it was 400—came from local authorities. We have revised it down to 350 because, if some of the family cases break down, the children will need local authority care and we need some capacity to provide it. Our consultation with local authorities is ongoing.

My Lords, the Minister will recall that last month I raised with her the disappearance of unaccompanied children. Figures from Europol that I first raised in your Lordships’ House in June showed that 10,000 children had disappeared on the continent and that hundreds were disappearing here in the United Kingdom. One of the reasons why I was proud to be a signatory to the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was the disappearance of those unaccompanied children. Last week, I sent the Minister a statement from ECPAT UK, the organisation established to protect children, which said that it is shocking that the Home Office says it has no evidence. Where do we stand on these missing unaccompanied minors?

I presume the noble Lord refers to children both at home and abroad. Obviously, if a child is in Greece, Italy, France or wherever, it is the responsibility of that Government to safeguard that child. I said to the noble Lord that I did not have evidence of disappeared children in this country. That is not to say that in future that may not happen, but at this point we have had no representation from local authorities to say that children are disappearing. Obviously, if that were to be the case, we would follow it up with some urgency.

My Lords, yesterday my noble friend Lord Dubs in this Chamber asked the Government,

“to confirm the news that we have heard about the Government intending to bring to an end the scheme under Section 67 of the Immigration Act”,

namely, the Dubs amendment. In response, the Government told the House:

“A Written Ministerial Statement will underscore that, far from doing that, Section 67 of the Act … stands”.—[Official Report, 8/2/17; col. 1715.]

Why was no reference made yesterday by the Government to any cap of 350 when that response was given to the very specific question from my noble friend Lord Dubs?

Can the Minister also respond to a question about the Written Statement? It says:

“Local authorities told us they have capacity for around 400 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children until the end of this financial year”.

What capacity have local authorities told the Government they have for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the 1917-18 financial year on the basis that the current level of government funding is continued?

My noble friend referred the House to the Written Ministerial Statement in which the figure of 350 was iterated; clearly, the WMS was laid not long before Questions began. I cannot remember the second part of the noble Lord’s question.

I am happy to repeat it because it is a quote from the Government’s own Written Statement:

“Local authorities told us they have capacity for around 400 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children until the end of this financial year”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/2/17; col. 10WS.]

What capacity have local authorities told the Government they have for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the next financial year, namely 1917-18, on the basis that the current level of government funding is continued?

I think the noble Lord means 2017-18. Obviously, as I have said to noble Lords, the Government are in constant consultation with local authorities on a range of things, including this. The scheme is entirely voluntary. We do not want to force local authorities to do things that they may not have the capacity to fulfil. Children are of paramount importance.