Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

Challenging David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions

Today in the House of Commons I challenged David Cameron over his response to the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe. This is now the worst humanitarian crisis to reach European shores since the Second World War and its impact is being felt right across our country. 

Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham) (Lab): May I ask the Prime Minister about the refugee crisis? This is the largest movement of people across Europe since the second world war with, in just one month, more than 50,000 refugees arriving in Greece and thousands more setting off on foot to go from Hungary to Austria. The Prime Minister committed on Monday that we would accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years, but for these people 2020 must seem a lifetime away. Can he tell the House how many will be allowed to come to the UK by the end of this year?

The Prime Minister: First, before I answer the right hon. and learned Lady’s question, I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to her 28 years of Front Bench service as it potentially comes to an end this week. She has served with distinction in both Opposition and Government. Twice she has stepped into the breach as her party’s acting leader, which is never an easy job, but she has carried it out with total assurance. She has always been a robust adversary across these Dispatch Boxes and a fierce champion for a range of issues, most notably women’s rights, where she has often led the way in changing attitudes in our country for the better. Although we have not always seen eye to eye, she has served her constituents, her party and this House with distinction from the Front Bench, and I wish her well as she continues to serve this House and our country from the Back Benches.

Turning to the specific issue the right hon. and learned Lady has raised, she is absolutely right: this is the biggest crisis facing Europe. We have to act on all of the areas she mentions. We have to use our head and our heart. We have committed to taking 20,000 people. I want us to get on with that. There is no limit on the number of people who could come in the first year. Let us get on with it, but let us recognise that we have to go to the camps, find the people, make sure they can be housed, find schools for their children, and work with local councils and local voluntary bodies to make sure that when these people come they get a warm welcome from Britain.

Ms Harman: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his generous words about my time on the Front Bench. It has been an absolute honour and a privilege to play my part in leading this great party.

We have to do all those things the Prime Minister has set out in relation to the refugees, but we still need to know, and we need a commitment, about the number we will take this year. This is an urgent crisis. If he cannot give us a number today, can he at least commit to go away and consult local authorities and throughout Government, and voluntary organisations and charities, and come back in a month and say how many this country will take this year?

It is welcome that the Prime Minister has said that we will take in Syrian refugees from the camps in the region, but he has ruled out taking in those who have made it to southern Europe. We understand his argument is that he does not want more people to put themselves in danger, but we have to deal with the reality. The reality is that thousands of people, including thousands of children without their parents, have already arrived in Europe. Save the Children has proposed that we take 3,000 of them into this country. Surely we should be playing our part to help those most vulnerable of children, even if they are already in Europe. Will he reconsider this?

The Prime Minister: On the number that we can achieve over the coming year, we have the first meeting on Friday of the committee that will be chaired jointly by the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. We will invite representatives of the Local Government Association and possibly some voluntary bodies to that meeting to make sure that we can plan. It is one thing to give a commitment to a number, whether it is the 20,000 that I think is right or something else; it is another thing to make sure that we can find these people, get them here and give them a warm welcome. I hope that the whole country can now come together in making sure that we deliver this effort properly.

The second point that the right hon. and learned Lady raised was about Europe. She talked about the reality in Europe. There is also a bigger reality, which is that 11 million Syrians have been pushed out of their homes and only 3% of them have so far decided to come to Europe. It is in the interests of the Syrian people and, indeed, all of us that we do everything we can to make sure that as many people as possible stay in the neighbouring countries and the refugee camps in preparation for one day returning to Syria. That is why Britain has led the way in funding the refugee camps, funding Lebanon and funding Jordan, and we will continue to do just that.

To answer the right hon. and learned Lady’s point about children, we will go on listening to Save the Children, which has done excellent work. A number of other expert organisations warn about the dangers of taking children further from their parents. The overall point I would make is that those who have already arrived in Europe are at least safe. If we can help the ones in the refugee camps—the ones in Lebanon and Jordan—it will discourage more people from making the perilous journey. All I can say is that from the conversations I have had so far with the leaders of, for instance, France and Germany, it is clear that they can see Britain playing her role, funding the refugee camps, meeting the target of 0.7% of GDP and welcoming 20,000 Syrians into our homes.

Ms Harman: All that is very important indeed and we support it, but what about the thousands of children who are already many, many miles from their homes—those who are already in Europe but who have no home? Surely we can play our part in helping some of those children too. I urge the Prime Minister to reconsider.

Of course planning has to be done for receiving refugees from the camps. It is right that the Prime Minister should meet local government, but when he has developed the plans, he should come back to the House. A month is enough time to be able to come back to the House and say how many we will take this year. This is urgent.

May I ask about the situation of the child refugees from the camps who the Prime Minister has said will be allowed to come here? They need sanctuary and security. We must not leave them living with the threat of deportation hanging over them. Will he assure us that they will not automatically be liable for deportation when they turn 18?

The Prime Minister: I can absolutely give that assurance. The reason for resettling people with the five-year humanitarian visas is that it means we do not have to go through the normal asylum process. At the end of that, if people want to stay, they can make an application to do so and the assumption is that they will be able to stay. Some may want to go back to Syria, particularly if there is a settlement in Syria between now and then.

Let me answer the right hon. and learned Lady’s other questions. Obviously I will come back to the House on a weekly basis to answer questions, as well as making statements and appearing in front of the Liaison Committee. I will commit to ensuring that the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government regularly update the House, because this is an enormous national exercise to ensure that we give a warm welcome to these 20,000 people. I am happy for them to do that. I know that Members of the House want to feed into the process with offers and ideas from their local councils.

Coming back to the point about children, yes we will be taking vulnerable children, including orphans, from camps in the region, as we have already. All the while, we will listen to the advice of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who advises caution on relocating unaccompanied children and applies that to the children who have already come to Europe as well.

Ms Harman: But the UNHCR does not tell us not to take children who are in those camps in Europe without their parents. I do welcome what the Prime Minister has said about not having a threat of deportation for those Syrian children who do come here. As the number of those fleeing to Europe via Turkey and Greece grows, it is right that we do not lose sight of those who are still making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean from Libya. Our Navy has rescued thousands of them already, and it is important that this level of search and rescue is maintained. Can he update the House on that?

The Prime Minister: The update I can give is that so far, I believe, we have rescued 6,700 children. First it was done with HMS Bulwark, the flagship of the Royal Navy, which was then replaced by HMS Enterprise, which has continued this very good work. We will continue doing this work with allies and others as long as is necessary; we are also using the two Border Force cutters. But I think we should all be honest with ourselves and recognise that, particularly in the case of economic migrants leaving on the African route, we have to break the link between those people getting on a boat and getting settlement in Europe. All the evidence from these sorts of migration crises in the past, particularly the example of Spain and the Canary Islands, shows that you do need a way of returning to Africa people who are not fleeing for their lives but are leaving for a better life, because if you cannot break that link, an increasing number of people will still want to make that perilous journey.

Ms Harman: Of course, we do need to find ways of returning people where that is right, but we also have to make sure that we stop them drowning at sea when they are fleeing as refugees—I know the Prime Minister agrees with that. The EU must have a robust and realistic plan, and today the European Commission has announced further steps. The Prime Minister said he would look at whether there was a need for a special summit of EU leaders. We know there is one scheduled for October, but if there ever was a need for a summit of EU leaders that time is now. Will he call for one?

The Prime Minister: I am happy to keep this under review, and I discussed it with Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande in the last couple of days. The meeting of the Home Affairs and Justice Ministers will be taking place in just a couple of days’ time. The British approach will be very clear: this must be a comprehensive approach. If all the focus is on redistributing quotas of refugees around Europe, that will not solve the problem; it actually sends a message to people that it is a good idea to get on a boat and make that perilous journey. That is not just my view; the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, who is absolutely right about this, has said:

“The answer is not quotas. All quotas will do is play into the hands of those who exploit vulnerable refugees.”—[Official Report, 1 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 332.]

Of course Europe has to reach its own answers for those countries that are part of Schengen. Britain has its own borders and we have the ability to make our own sovereign decisions about this, and our approach is to say, “Yes, we are a humanitarian nation with a moral conscience, we will take 20,000 Syrians. But we want a comprehensive approach that puts money into the camps, that meets our aid commitments, that solves the problems in Syria, that has a return path to Africa and that sees a new Government in Libya.” We have to address all those issues, and Britain, as a sovereign nation with its own borders, will do just that.

Ms Harman: But this is not about Schengen and it is not just about us as a sovereign nation doing what we can and should; it is about us working together with other countries. The refugee crisis presents a daunting problem that we are all striving to tackle, but we also have to address the underlying causes, which are conflict, global inequality and poverty. There are no simple answers, but we can address those only by working with other countries. The responsibilities we share, as well as the threats that we face, reach across borders in this globalised age. To be British is not to be narrow, inward-looking and fearful of the outside world, but to be strong, confident and proud to reach out and engage with the rest of the world. The Government should rise to this challenge of our time, and I urge the Prime Minister to do so.

The Prime Minister: I agree with every word that the right hon. and learned Lady has just said. I would say that Britain, uniquely among countries in the world, meets its 2% NATO spending target—so we can play a role in terms of defence and helping to secure these countries—and reaches its target of spending 0.7% of GDP on aid. No other major country in the world meets those two targets, and I am proud that we do.

The right hon. and learned Lady talks about going to the causes of these crises, and she is absolutely right about that. We have to be frank: the eastern Mediterranean crisis, in particular, is because Assad has butchered his own people and because ISIL has, in its own way, butchered others, and millions have fled Syria. We can do all we can, as a moral, humanitarian nation, to take people, spend money on aid and help in refugee camps, but we have to be part of the international alliance that says, “We need an approach in Syria that will mean we have a Government that can look after their people.” Assad has to go, ISIL has to go, and some of that will require not just spending money, not just aid, not just diplomacy—it will, on occasion, require hard military force.


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