From HoL TV

The Rt Revd Paul Butler Bishop of Durham speak in the HoL at 12:17 pm on the 21/01/2020

I speak from these benches again recognising that the argument has been made again and again. As my Noble friend, the Rt Revd Lord Bishop of Worcester reminded this House last week, this debate resonates with the nativity story; a 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 too. Let this House speak on their behalf by voting for this amendment.

Let me try and explain again why the Government’s change is proving so difficult for those who work with these migrant children to accept, and thus why many in this house find it difficult too.

As Lord Dubs reminded the House at Committee Stage the Government opposed his amendments on previous occasions. The law as is stands was hard fought for, 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 fully accept the Minister’s own personal commitment to migrant children. I also accept that there is every intention to offer welcome and to maintain family reunion. But what the Government’s proposals have conveyed is quite the opposite. I wrote to the Minister with a suggested compromise. I do not know what she made of that as I have not received a reply. I accepted in my letter that it might not work as a proposal. But what I am struggling to understand is 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 Rt Revd colleagues and I view this particular issue as a moral bellwether 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 the minister and the government do want to act with compassion. It is simply that what is proposed is not conveying this.

Lord Dubs has mentioned that for some this is cast as an issue of trust – do we trust that the Government will deliver its promises to vulnerable children without legislative assurance in the EU Withdrawal Bill? However, this is not to my mind an issue of trust, but of priority – where do the Government’s priorities lie? In reassuring families who are scared that they will be reunited with their children, or in setting those families aside as secondary to our freedom to negotiate with the European Union?

It is important that the Government can negotiate a good deal for this country with our European neighbours. But we cannot set this against our responsibility to protect children. That is what clause 37 suggests – that the Government’s priorities necessarily mean 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 is not the Government’s intentions, 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 like community sponsorship 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. This is why I am sponsoring this amendment and urge others to support it.

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