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5.28 pm

Keir Starmer (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairladyship, Mrs Main. [Interruption.] I am taking my lead from the SNP.

This is an important debate. We have had three debates today on aspects of the refugee crisis, which is clearly the issue of our time. I will not take up time by repeating the numbers, because I know the Minister wants to respond to some of the questions that have been put to him. Millions of people have fled Syria, as everybody knows. Millions are registered as asylum seekers in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and now of course in Greece and Italy. There are millions, taken together. We stand at a moment when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the EU are calling on the international community for a collective response to a huge crisis. We have not seen a crisis of this size and order for many generations.

I pay tribute to the work of this Minister in particular—the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees—in this field, and to what the Government have done. The steps that have been taken are welcome. However, in 20 years’ time chapters in history books will be written about this moment in world history, in European history and in our own history, and I have concerns that—on reflection and looking back—our response will be judged as reluctant and limited, and in comparison with others not fair and not proportionate.

I just remind hon. Members that, back in January 2014, we agreed only to aid the neighbours of Syria in their efforts but not to have any part in the resettlement scheme at all. That work was extended in 2014 but only in relation to vulnerable persons—broadly speaking, those who had suffered sexual violence and torture—and it was expected that a few hundred people might resettle. Then, in September 2015, there was the resettlement programme for 20,000 Syrians.

Those steps were all welcome, but all of them were, in truth, a response to overwhelming pressure from the public, the media and the Opposition in this House. The same is true in relation to unaccompanied children. There has been a debate about this issue for some weeks. There was a statement just a few weeks ago, but again it was more limited than many of us had hoped for. There is the sense of reluctant and limited steps being taken, welcome though those steps are.

There are a number of questions for the Minister to deal with now and in the coming weeks and months. The first is this: can the hard stop line about Europe really be maintained any more? In other words, can we really say that we have no responsibility to deal with those people who have arrived in Europe and that we simply have to put the burden on the states where they are now, and play no part in relocation? I understand why it is important not to undermine the Dublin III agreement, but on the other hand there are countries that are clearly struggling with the number of people they have, and I wonder whether that hard stop line can be justified for very much longer.

I also raise again the question of unaccompanied children. I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) said about this issue, and it is an argument that is made about the influence that our action might have on future action. However, we have to face up to the fact that these

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children are in Europe right now, unaccompanied, and they are desperate, and the push-pull factors do not apply to them, as others have already said. Also, a number of these children are disappearing. Are we really going to stand here and say that, for fear of what might happen in the future, we will do nothing for them now? I am very uncomfortable that, as a country, that could possibly be our position, and I think that view is shared across the House in different ways and with different forces.

Bob Stewart: Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way on that point?

Keir Starmer: Of course.

Bob Stewart: I will be very quick.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): I was going to call the Minister in about 30 seconds.

Bob Stewart: I will take seconds. Unaccompanied children need to be properly processed, because if we act too fast they might never see their parents or their other relatives again. We have to get that processing right.

Keir Starmer: I am grateful for that intervention and I agree.

I will use up my remaining 30 seconds simply to say that whatever processes are applied, either to unaccompanied children or to adult asylum seekers arriving in this country, they have to be better managed than they are now. There are disproportionate burdens in different areas, and we have to address that sooner rather than later. Also, as we debated this morning in relation to accommodation, there are real concerns about the way that services and accommodation are being provided to asylum seekers.

These are big questions, but they are the questions of our time.

5.33 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Refugees (Richard Harrington): Thank you very much, Mrs Main, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairladyship.

I do not have time to go through everything; I would have liked to go through all hon. Members’ speeches. Obviously, I congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) on securing the debate. Unfortunately, Mrs Main, every time you said, “Richard”, I jumped up. So, the hon. Gentleman and I have something in common.

In fact, I think we have more than that in common, and I pay tribute to the partnership between the Scottish Government, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Home Office. This is one of the things that we can say that we have all really worked together on, and I commend the Scottish people for what they have done for the refugees through the resettlement programme.

I apologise for not mentioning every single speech by every hon. Member but it really is because of time and not because I do not want to. I could probably have taken up the whole hour of the debate myself, as hon. Members can imagine.

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I will try to cut out a lot of the general stuff, but I will put something on the record. I have been doing this job since the middle of September and I do not see the cold lack of a humanitarian attitude of the Government towards refugees. Those people who know me know that I am not the most partisan of people; this job is not the most partisan of jobs. However, I genuinely do not see this complete lack of humanitarianism. If anybody would like to discuss that separately, I would be very happy to do so. I am not saying that I take offence at comments about a lack of humanitarianism, but I genuinely do not see such an attitude.

The UK has a proud reputation for giving asylum to people. I myself am only two generations away from refugees and if this country had not taken my family—well, there certainly would have been another Member of Parliament for Watford, which would probably please quite a few people in this room.

It is obvious, as many hon. Members have said, that the sufferings of the Syrian people are a stain on humanity. When I think what my father saw in the second world war, and what the generation before him saw in the first world war, not to mention the movement of people after the second world war, it seems that we have all learnt nothing if this can happen in our time—really.

However, in the time I have left I must return to what the UK has done. Since the war started in Syria, we have granted asylum to more than 5,000 Syrians in Britain. We have the resettlement scheme, and I very much commend and personally thank those hon. Members who mentioned what has happened since the beginning of September, when we started the scheme.

Several SNP Members were really saying that the Government should do more, and not only in terms of the number of refugees. I agree that the number is arguable; anybody can have their views on that and it is very easy in these debates to come up with numbers. However, I can say that we have had the sort of partnership that hon. Members said has not existed. I spend my whole time with local authorities and talking to them, and the Government have included so many different groups under the strategic migration partnership—the SMP. We have always had the SNP but now we have the SMP. In every area of the UK, we have an SMP and it includes the local authority, the Home Office and nearly all the NGOs involved in this field. I will point that out.

The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway secured this debate. Personally, in my experience, I agree with what he said about people not coming here for benefits. Certainly with the Syrian refugees I have met, I think it has been the last thing on their minds. Unfortunately, however, I reject what he said about the Syrian bombing campaign—that it is simply something the British Government are doing to keep their “pals” happy. I would also argue that our response to what has happened in Syria has not been inadequate.

The hon. Gentleman and several other speakers wanted me to avoid going on about the camps. In fact, there are very few camps, but people can see in the areas around Syria quite what this country has done. With the exception of the United States, our humanitarian programme is by far the most significant, and it can be seen everywhere —in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

Everything we do is through the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UNHCR policy is to settle people in the countries around Syria,

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and particularly to try to relocate children to extended families in that area. The UNHCR says that the vast majority of them—up to nine out of 10 of them, as far as we are aware—are resettled within the area that is called “the camps”, but actually it is just the area around Syria with extended families. I believe that that is the right policy, because obviously they all hope that they are going to go back to Syria. That does not mean that there are not unaccompanied minors, and the Government made a statement on that, as the shadow Minister said, the week before last. Tomorrow, the Immigration Minister and I are holding a roundtable discussion with most of the non-governmental organisations involved, including the UNCHR, to discuss where we go from here.

The Government are not doing nothing about children in Europe. Only last week, a further £10 million was announced. We are talking not just about money. There are many attempts to sort out what children are there and exactly where they are from, as well as to verify their identity and provide safe places for them to go within Europe. I am pleased to say that our Government, through the Department for International Development, are very much at the forefront of that. That is unusual for DFID, because in normal circumstances France, Germany and so on are not lower-income countries, but we are doing our bit. I know it is not what Members want, but I would not like to allow the assumption that we are doing nothing in mainland Europe to pass by, because that really is not true.

The main point that I would like to make is on numbers. It was mentioned that some economists wrote to the Government and that the bishops approached the Government. Lots of people write to the Prime Minister with numbers, and we have been both complimented and criticised about what we are doing with the 20,000 people. It is quite normal that people have their views and that they lobby. The shadow Minister said that what the Government have done is because of pressure from the Opposition and other groups, but to some extent that is how Governments work. The Government get criticised for not listening to what the Opposition and lobby groups say, or it is regarded as weakness if they do listen.

I feel that this is probably the least politically contentious part of Government. There is general cross-party consensus, perhaps not on extent, but on substance. In my life as a Minister in this field, I speak to so many groups and conferences—I am going to the east midlands tomorrow. Perhaps this is the last thing one should to a group of politicians, but I do not even know who is Labour or Conservative or Scottish National party, because that does not enter into it. The SNP Members made a political point about a fear of UKIP, but I have not seen it, and I am happy to go on the record on that. It is the last thing on our mind, and I hope that the Labour and SNP council leaders whom I have spoken to would agree with that sentiment.

This is a complex issue. I feel personally and professionally that the Government are on the right tracks. We have a long way to go. The resettlement programme alone will run over the course of the Parliament. We have to select who we take over here through the UNHCR. The vulnerability criteria are not subjective.

Anne McLaughlin rose

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Richard Harrington: I am sorry, but there is not time. Otherwise, I would love to give way. The vulnerability criteria are calculated and worked out in a professional, impartial way. The criteria have expanded from two to seven, so they are wide.

We are determined that those who come here do so with the consent of the people in this country, which generally there has been. I have paid tribute to Scotland, but people have been taken in all over the country. It is not right to say scathingly that some places take one or two or three families. For a small community, that can

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be pretty good. Other communities, such as Bradford, are very much used to taking in refugees and asylum seekers. They have done that for many years, and they have the set-up to do so.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order.

5.43 pm

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).