On 21st January 2020 the House of Lords debated and voted on an amendment to the Government’s EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill from Lord Dubs, which would restore measures for refugee children family reunion. The Bishop supported the amendment as a co-sponsor and in the subsequent vote it was passed by 300 votes to 220. It returns to the Commons to be voted on by MPs.
The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I speak once more from these Benches, recognising that the argument has been made again and again. I am honoured to follow the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and to concur with all that he said. As my right reverend friend the Bishop of Worcester reminded the House last week—he kindly spoke for me because I could not be present in Committee—this debate resonates with the nativity story, the story of a child fleeing persecution. The voices of these children are too often drowned out by conflict and violence, by traffickers and by political leaders. Let this House speak on their behalf by voting for the amendment.
I shall try to explain again why the Government’s change is proving to be so difficult for those who work with migrant children to accept, and thus why many in this House find it difficult too. As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, reminded the Committee and then the House just now, the Government opposed his amendments on previous occasions. The law as it stands was hard fought for; it was not easily won. Thus, the proposed removal appears to be the Government saying, “Well, we never really wanted the Dubs amendments, so now here is a chance to remove them.” I note that in the Conservative Party manifesto there is a reference to welcoming refugees, but the lack of a specific reference to child refugees and family reunion simply adds to public concern.
I fully accept the Minister’s personal commitment to migrant children. I also accept that there is every intention to offer a welcome and maintain family reunion, but what the Government’s proposals have conveyed is quite the opposite. I wrote to the Minister with a suggested compromise, accepting in my letter that it might not work as a proposal, but I am struggling to understand why the Government cannot see that the message they are conveying at present is a negative one, whatever their good intent.
From these Benches, my right reverend colleagues and I view this issue as a moral bell-wether for the future of our country. We want to be known as a country that is welcoming, compassionate and committed to playing our full part in responding to the deep issues that arise from the reality of refugees around the world. I believe that the Minister and the Government want to act with compassion; it is simply that what is proposed does not convey this.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, mentioned that, for some, this is cast as an issue of trust. Do we trust that the Government will deliver their promises to vulnerable children without legislative assurance in the EU withdrawal Bill? However, to my mind, this is a matter not simply of trust but of priority. Where do the Government’s priorities lie? It is important that they can negotiate a good deal for this country with our European neighbours, but we cannot set this against our responsibility to protect vulnerable children. That is what Clause 37 suggests: that the Government’s priorities necessarily mean that we cannot give legislative assurance that we, as a nation, will provide for vulnerable children to be reunited with their families in safety. I am sure that that is not the Government’s intention, but our actions testify to our values. The action of including Clause 37, removing the family reunion obligation from primary legislation, speaks louder and will be heard further beyond this place than promises of other legislation yet to be enacted.
Ensuring that there are safe, legal, effective and managed routes for child refugees to be reunited with their families in this country must remain an imperative. Schemes such as community sponsorship—here I declare my interest as a trustee of Reset—are an international gold standard for how to welcome refugees and provide new opportunities for those who have lost so much. We can hold our heads high because of the Government’s work in recent years to support refugee resettlement here. Now is not the time to contradict this good work with the consequences of Clause 37. Will we be open, sharing our prosperity and opportunity with children who deserve so much more than the precarious life of a refugee and have so much more to offer, or will we be closed to them, shut off from the world and our responsibilities as a global power? I believe the choice is clear, which is why I have added my name to this amendment. I urge others to support it and the Government to accept it