Since Parliament returned after the General Election I have been contacted by many constituents who have raised questions surrounding the Withdrawal Agreement Bill’s amendment to section 17 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which concerns the family reunification of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. I am grateful to all those that have contacted me on such an important issue.
I think there are two separate points to be addressed – and these have been somewhat conflated in the debate around the amendment that was debated and voted upon last week.
The first is moral – and here I think we come at this from a similar perspective. As someone who rebelled against a three-line whip and voted against the Government over the Dubs amendment on child refugees in the last Parliament, I’m very much aware of and fully understand the challenges inherent in providing proper protection for unaccompanied refugee children – and I’m enormously seized, too, of the imperatives that dictate that this must be achieved. The UK does have a record of support and compassion which is consonant with our international obligations and, more importantly, our values.
I’m pleased to say that the UK has provided protection for 41,000 children since 2010 (with 7,500 of these coming in the last 12 months), received over 3000 asylum applications from unaccompanied children in 2018 (making us Europe’s third-highest intake country) and issued over 6000 family reunion visas to children and partners of refugees in the last year alone. Any attempt to reverse this commitment to helping the most vulnerable must be resisted – and is certainly not something which I would support or condone.
However, and to address the second point, the vote last week in fact didn’t directly impinge on UK policy towards refugees. This was not a vote on policy, but on procedure. Last week we saw a statutory duty to negotiate with the EU on this subject replaced with a firm requirement to report on the Government’s policy in respect of those negotiations.
But the policy itself is unchanged – the resettlement and family reunion schemes will go on just as before. It’s also worth remembering that the UK has already written to the EU negotiating team (on the 22nd October last year) asking that both sides address reciprocal arrangements for family reunion and unaccompanied children as a high priority. This change simply clarifies the respective roles of Parliament and the executive in respect of negotiations.
However, I can understand the disquiet this change has produced and the anxieties of those who fear this will presage a watering-down of the current arrangements. The Government has made it clear that no policy change is in the offing and – in response to representations made by me and a number of other colleagues – have suggested that legal guarantees in respect of post-Brexit asylum policy will be enshrined in a more tightly-focused and specific Bill, which I welcome. That is certainly something for which I’ll continue to push. And when the Government meet this obligation and make a statement to Parliament, I will be holding them to account in just the way I suggest above.
As a last point we should also remember that all of this takes place within the context of the UK’s status as a signatory to the Council of Europe’s 2017 action plan on protecting refugees and migrant children, which, among other things, enhances the integration of children into host societies. That is a permanent commitment which, rightly, endures.
I do hope this gives you some idea of where I stand on this. The EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill was not the place for policy shifts or expansion around this issue – it was simply a Bill to take us out of the EU on the 31st of this month. When we see votes on policy, rather than procedure, please do be assured that I’ll continue to be guided by the same imperatives that have led me to vote both with and against my own party and always in favour of a reasoned, compassionate approach to the most vulnerable.