MPs back flagship immigration legislation amid child refugee concerns

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MPs have approved flagship immigration legislation which seeks to end EU freedom of movement rules in the UK.

The Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill is part of the move towards the Government’s new points-based immigration system, to be introduced from 2021.

It was approved at third reading by 342 votes to 248, majority 94, thereby clearing all stages in the House of Commons.

But concerns expressed by MPs over unaccompanied child refugees and indefinite detention for those held at immigration centres highlighted potential parliamentary battles ahead for the Government when the Bill is considered by peers in the House of Lords.

Home Secretary Priti Patel MP said in a statement: “Last year the British people sent a clear message that they wanted to end free movement and our landmark Immigration Bill delivers exactly that.

“Labour voting against this Bill shows that while their leadership may have changed, their determination to deny the will of the people has not.”

Labour’s Yvette Cooper, chairwoman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, earlier warned the Government not to turn its back on child refugees.

She pressed to vote for her amendment which sought to continue existing arrangements for unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with close relatives in the UK.

Labour MP Yvette Cooper expressed concern (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Labour MP Yvette Cooper expressed concern (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

He told the debate there must be a “clear intent” from the Government that a scheme will be in place post-Brexit to help protect unaccompanied child refugees.

Speaking at the Bill’s report stage, Mr Loughton said: “We’ve had fob-offs frankly over recent years for why it wouldn’t be appropriate to put this on the face of legislation. We need a very, very clear statement and intent from the Government today that there will be a scheme in operation on January 1.

“I know it depends on the negotiations but we can also put in place, if all else fails, our own scheme which is at least as good as (the Dublin Regulation) and that is what this amendment is actually trying to achieve.”

Former children's minister Tim Loughton (Gareth Fuller/PA)
Former children’s minister Tim Loughton (Gareth Fuller/PA)

“That’s what this amendment asks for. We really have got to do better because I can’t understand it, my constituents won’t understand it, if we fail to give that strong commitment that we continue in this country to want to do the best by those really vulnerable children.”

Conservative former cabinet minister David Davis also offered his support, noting “as an ex-Brexit secretary I see no reason whatsoever to wait on negotiation” to take action on the amendments proposed.

Ms Cooper said: “Desperate young people have already lost their lives, we should not turn our backs on them now, we need to sustain those safe and legal routes.”

For the Government, Home Office minister Kevin Foster said the Government is “committed to the principle of family reunion and supporting vulnerable children”.

He told the Commons: “We recognise families can become separated because of the nature of conflict and persecution and the speed and manner in which people are often forced to flee their country.

“However, proposed new clause 29 does not recognise the current routes available for reuniting families or the negotiations we are perusing with the EU on new reciprocal arrangements for the family reunion of unaccompanied asylum seeking children in either the UK or the EU as set out in the draft legal text.”

Labour MP Nadia Whittome (Nottingham East) also said the Bill is a “slap in the face” for frontline workers from overseas who have “risked their lives” during the pandemic.

She told MPs: “This punitive, discriminatory piece of legislation is a slap in the face of the carers, the cleaners, the drivers and shop assistants who have risked their lives on the front line to keep this country running throughout the pandemic.

“Members here have applauded every week. The scale of the Government’s hypocrisy is breathtaking. Clapping for carers one day and downgrading their status in the law in the next.”

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