There was a faint hope that legislation would allow unaccompanied children to bring family here, but Parliament decided against it …
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21.1.2020 Guardian: Government loses child refugee vote in string of Lords defeats
The government has suffered five defeats on its Brexit deal in the space of 24 hours in the House of Lords, with the heaviest defeat in a vote to restore the right of unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with their families in the UK after Brexit.
There was a vote of 300 in favour and 220 against, giving a majority of 80 in support of an amendment, proposed by the Labour peer Alf Dubs, requiring the UK government to maintain the principle of family reunion for child refugees fleeing conflict.
“Either the government is mean and nasty or they are giving the impression of being mean and nasty; they could quite easily change that impression by accepting this amendment,” Lord Dubs said. “We have shown very clearly that the Lords vote is based on humanitarian principles. It’s now the turn of the Commons to show what they’re made of.” [Read more]
The legislation is expected to gain royal assent within days after peers agreed to end the parliamentary “ping-pong” phase where it moves between the two houses until agreement is reached.
The Secretary of State will understand that there are, of course, some people for whom the challenge of applying for status is considerable, and the Government have said they will give reasonable consideration to those who have reason not to have applied by the deadline. One group that I and other colleagues are particularly concerned about is children looked after in the care system by local authorities, which do not in many cases have either the resources or the expertise to pursue applications for those children to obtain settled status. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that they will be protected, as they would be under a declaratory system?
The hon. Lady makes a fair point, and I know that she has taken a close interest in the issue over many years. As she will be aware, we have committed £9 million to work with vulnerable groups and to help sectors, including the one to which she refers, with using the settlement scheme, and we have introduced a grace period to allow additional time if there are reasons why people need to apply late.
The fact is that the scheme has no charge and almost 3 million people have applied. It is working well, but we have an outreach programme, which includes 57 organisations and money to address the hon. Lady’s point.
I shall make a little more progress before taking further interventions. I urge Members to reject both amendments.
I turn to Lords amendment 4, tabled by the noble Lord Dubs. Although the Government humbly disagree with the amendment, we recognise his sincerity about and dedication to this issue and the constructive scrutiny that he has provided on behalf of vulnerable children. The amendment would remove the provision that amends the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 to require the Government to report on their policy on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
I can only say again, as I did in our previous debates, that the Government’s policy is unchanged. Delivering on it will not require legislation. The Government have a proud record on supporting the most vulnerable children. The UK has granted protection to more than 41,000 children since the start of 2010. In 2018, the UK received more than 3,000 asylum applications from unaccompanied children, and the UK deals with 15% of all claims in the EU, making us the country with the third highest intake in Europe. Indeed, in the year ending September 2019 the intake rose to more than 3,500.
I am pleased that the policy has not changed, but why is the Secretary of State changing the legislation?
The right hon. Gentleman pre-empts the passage that I am just coming to.
As hon. Members will be aware, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary wrote to the European Commission on 22 October on this very issue. The amendment in no way affects our commitment to seek an agreement with the EU. Primary legislation cannot deliver the best outcomes for these children, as it cannot guarantee that we will reach an agreement. That is why this is ultimately a matter that must be negotiated with the EU. The Government are committed to seeking the best possible outcome in those negotiations.
Over the past three and a half years, there have been many arguments and debates about European citizens’ rights and their protection. Refugee children are among the most vulnerable in the world—surely none of us, regardless of the side of the argument we were on, wants their safety or the possibility of their being reunited with their families to be undermined in any way. Why, then, are the Government so determined to take such provision out of the Bill rather than going with the amendment, which would offer a guarantee and reassure everyone in the House?
For the reasons that I have alluded to; this is an issue that the Home Secretary is addressing.
I give way to the previous Chair of the Home Affairs Committee—I am conscious that that election is still to come.
The Secretary of State has still given no reason. Why take the provision out of the 2018 Act? It is in previous legislation. There are loads of things in legislation through the decades that the Government say they disagree with, but amendments are not needed because they have said they disagree, and they do not remove those things from the statute book. That is what makes us suspect that he wants to remove it, because for some reason he thinks that it will restrict what he wants to do, and in the end, therefore, he will betray the commitments that have been made to the most vulnerable children. If not, he should keep the provision in the Act.
Let me address that head-on: the reason is that the purpose of the legislation is to implement in domestic law the international agreement that we have reached. That is what the withdrawal agreement Bill is doing and that is why we do not support the amendment. What drives the right hon. Lady’s concern is whether the protections will be in place for unaccompanied children. I draw her attention again to the Government’s record as one of the three best countries in the EU. The figures show that this country has the third highest intake and deals with 15% of all claims in the EU. That is the policy that the Government and the Prime Minister are committed to, and it is reflected in the Home Secretary’s approach.
At this late stage in the Secretary of State’s comments, will he reflect again on Lords amendments 4 and 1? If what he says to the House is true, there is no principle at stake. If the policy and the determined will of the Government remain the same when it comes to unaccompanied child refugees, there is nothing to be lost. There was no strong defence of the Government position in the House of Lords. I urge him to consider this matter wholly and listen to voices across the House who believe that it would be better to see legislative provision than not.
I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the comments that I have made: the policy has not changed and the Government’s commitment is reflected in the record, and that is why the amendment should be resisted.