A Home Office minister has insisted that government is ‘not mean’ for backtracking on previous commitments over child refugees.
Tory frontbencher Baroness Williams of Trafford defended the record of successive Conservative administrations and strongly rejected claims the vulnerable youngsters would be used as “bargaining chips” in post-Brexit negotiations with the EU.
Anger has been expressed after Boris Johnson re-drafted his Withdrawal Agreement Bill following his landslide election victory.
This rowed back on the previous the government’s acceptance of an amendment from Labour peer Lord Dubs to allow unaccompanied child refugees to continue to be reunited with their families in the UK after exit day.
Raising the issue, Lord Dubs, who fled the Nazis as a boy, argued the case for the existing provisions on child refugees and family reunification to be retained.
He warned against the children being used as “bargaining chips” in negotiations and accused ministers of “turning their backs” on them.
Lord Dubs said the UK had a specific responsibility for young people with family members already resident here and warned that to remove that would force more to take the “illegal route on the back of lorries” from France.
Independent crossbencher and former diplomat Lord Kerr of Kinlochard said it would be “disgusting” if the fate of these children should be seen as a matter for negotiation.
Baroness Butler-Sloss, a former High Court judge and independent crossbencher, said the government was proposing to take away the rights of vulnerable young people.
“It is the fact they have a right to come here and goodness me are we just going to let it go by the board,” she added.
Opposition spokesman Lord McNichol of West Kilbride said: “The government’s inclusion of Clause 37, which reneges on its previous binding commitments to seek to negotiate reciprocal agreements with the EU to facilitate the safe passage of child refugees with families in the UK, is simply unnecessary and unjust.”
“Ripping up prior commitments in the face of such opposition is not how a new government should start its term in office.”
But responding for the government, Lady Williams said: “We are all committed fully to both the principle of family reunion and supporting the most vulnerable children in the world and our policy on this has not changed.
“It is writ large in our manifesto that we will ‘continue to grant asylum and support refugees facing persecution.
“It is in our manifesto and we intend to keep to that commitment, the commitment on the government’s proud record of providing protection to vulnerable children.”
She pointed out that since 2010, the UK had granted protection to 41,000 children, 7,500 of them in the year ending September 2019.
Lady Williams said: “This is not a mean government or a mean country. I’m very, very proud of our record.”
She added: “We are all humanitarians. I can assure you the government shares an undiminished commitment to addressing these issues.
“Please let’s have no more comments about bargaining chips, because this is seeking to do the best by all children whether they be in the EU or the UK.
“We have already started talks with the EU on this subject and our commitment to children has not changed.”