Ministers have been pressed to go further in their commitments to detail the capacity of English councils to house unaccompanied child refugees, amid a potential Tory rebellion.
Education minister Edward Timpson said the UK Government is happy to publish regular updates on the number of unaccompanied asylum seeking children transferred to or resettled in the UK, including which country they have been transferred from.
But Labour’s Yvette Cooper, chairwoman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, insisted this information should specify how many children the local authorities are prepared to take from abroad – including Europe.
She also questioned if the UK will continue to take children under the Dubs scheme, which was controversially closed by the Government after 350 unaccompanied children were resettled.
Ministers have argued councils could not afford to resettle 3,000 children under the scheme, a claim disputed by Tory backbencher Heidi Allen.
The MP for South Cambridgeshire has tabled an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill, which would require councils to report annually on what capacity they have to resettle children, including unaccompanied refugees.
Her proposal has cross-party support.
Speaking during the Bill’s report stage, Mr Timpson told MPs: “The Government has committed to publishing a safeguarding strategy for unaccompanied asylum seeking and refugee children by 1st May 2017, by virtue of the written ministerial statement that I laid on 1st November last year.
“As part of this we have been consulting with local authorities about their capacity and will set out plans to boost capacity for foster carers and supported lodgings in that strategy.
“We will continue to consult with local authorities about that capacity to support unaccompanied asylum seeking and refugee children in order to help us identify those authorities most able to support unaccompanied children and those needing support through the national transfer scheme.
“To that end we are happy to commit to updating Parliament annually on delivery against the safeguarding strategy and publishing regular updates on the number of unaccompanied asylum seeking children transferred to or resettled in the UK by country of transfer.”
But Ms Cooper raised questions about this approach, asking: “It’s welcome he will publish information by local authority as well.
“Can you specify though, will you also publish specifically the number they’d be prepared to take from abroad and including from Europe?
“That’s the content of the amendment of new clause 14 – it includes unaccompanied refugee children who could be transferred to the area from abroad.
“And does this mean the Government will continue to take children under the Dubs scheme after the 350 the Government has specified, yes or no?”
Mr Timpson replied: “(Home Secretary Amber Rudd) has set out the Government’s position in relation to the Dubs scheme.
“What we’re trying to do here is look at the overall capacity within local authorities, not just for specific groups of children but all children whatever route they’re coming in to England and across the United Kingdom.”
Ms Allen later urged the minister to say if the safeguarding strategy would identify councils that could offer homes for refugee children in Italy and Greece under a re-opened Dubs scheme.
She said: “Let’s just get that elephant out there, this debate for many of us is about Dubs, and whether we can bring that back to life.
“This amendment, the heart of it is about consulting with local authorities about what capacity they might have.
“Now why is this of interest to us? This is of interest specifically for me, because since the Government announced that the Dubs scheme would be closed down local authorities across the country have stepped forward and said they can do more.
“So, if that capacity is there, a safeguarding strategy and something that extracts that information from local authorities on a regular basis, rather than just once at the end of the financial year, is powerful information and we must know it.
“But what I am interested to hear from the minister – and I still have not heard it and that would depend on how I would feel about pressing this to a vote or not – is whether this safeguarding strategy that we are hearing about, and this ongoing consultation with local authorities, who will that apply to?
“Will it be children in Europe who may potentially come to us as refugee asylum seekers? Is it just the children in Syria and the region? Or is it just those arriving under their own dangerous but hard-fought steam on the back of trucks and trains?”
Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner earlier said Labour would support new clause 14.
She added: “Our care for child refugees says something about us as a country.
“I hope that we can hold our heads up high at the end of today and take our lead from the example set in the debate that was had in the Lords.”
Labour’s Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) said 350 children equates to 0.002 per cent of all the unaccompanied child refugees in Europe.
She said: “When we debated Dubs we talked about 3,000 children – 3,000 children would be just 0.025 per cent of children.
“It’s right that people are concerned about what other countries are doing, that we hold the French and indeed the Greeks and Italians accountable for their treatment of these children.
“But when Turkey is taking 2.8 million Syrian refugees alone, how can we hold our head up high if we don’t do our bit as well? And the Dubs amendment is about doing our bit as well.”
Ms Creasy was applauded by a large number of people in the public gallery at the end of her speech.
Those in attendance in the chamber included actors Juliet Stevenson and Toby Jones.
Picture: A migrant child stands in the makeshift refugee camp at the northern Greek border point of Idomeni, Greece on Saturday 26th March 2016. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic).