Jim Wallace's Response to the Government on Syria

Probably nothing is more important than the Government’s primary responsibility of security of the realm and its citizens. The Prime Minister acknowledges that in his Statement. Clearly, we do not have the evidence, nor would it be appropriate to share that evidence publicly, and therefore we must accept the judgement of the Prime Minster in responding to perhaps one of the most serious calls that has been made on him. However, it would be interesting to know whether this is a matter that the Intelligence and Security Committee will be able to look at.

There is also reference in the Statement to the legal basis. Having worked closely as a law officer with the present Attorney-General, I know that his judgement would be made with considerable rigorous legal diligence and bringing to bear his considerable personal and professional integrity. I do not call for the publication of law officers’ advice; that is not something that, as a former officer, I would readily do. However, the noble Baroness will remember that before the House debated chemical weapon use by the Syrian regime and a possible UK government response, and before we debated last year the position on military action in Iraq against ISIL, the Government published on each occasion a statement setting out the Government’s legal position. If it is felt possible to elaborate on what was said in the Statement by a similar note, I think that we would find that very helpful.

The images of migration that we have seen on our screens and in our newspapers over recent days have certainly touched our common humanity. There has been an outpouring of the view that we must welcome refugees, and that is one that we certainly endorse. The Statement says that,

“the whole country has been deeply moved by the heart-breaking images we have seen over the past few days”.

However, will the noble Baroness the Leader of the House tell us whether any of those travelling across Europe at the moment will be accommodated in any way by what was set out in the Statement? We have heard of 20,000 refugees—said very loudly; “over five years” is probably said more sotto voce—but these are people in camps in countries bordering Syria. That is not to dismiss what is being done in that regard, and it is welcome in as far as it goes. However, what the people in this country have been crying out about are the scenes on our television screens of people walking across Europe, fleeing terror and destitution. Yet can the Minister point to one sentence in this Statement that indicates that for those people there is some glimmer of hope that the United Kingdom will be a welcome haven?

We have a common problem and it requires a common response. There are problems in the Mediterranean, on Europe’s borders and in coming across Europe and we should be promoting a common European response. The European Union system has its failings. The Dublin system is not by any stretch of the imagination perfect, but by our stand-offish stance we seem to have forfeited any real or moral authority in being able to give the lead in trying to improve or work out a more coherent European approach to this. Will the Government commit themselves to taking a more active role in co-operating with our European partners, as well as in participating in European Union efforts on relocation?

With regard to those who are coming, we welcome the steps have been taken. Many local authorities have indicated a willingness to take refugees. The Leader of the Opposition asked what would be done to bring these local authorities together, and it would be useful to know what consultations had already taken place. What consideration has been given as to whether there should be a dispersal programme or whether it is better to keep communities together for mutual support? I do not pretend that I have the answer to that, but real issues are involved. What has been done to ensure that there are interpretation services, counselling and support services for English as a second language?

We have heard about the international aid budget being used for the first year to support local authorities, but surely in a situation such as this there is something in reserve that we could use. The Statement itself refers to holding “larger sums in reserve”. Has this been taken from the overseas aid budget for future years or has a separate reserve been taken up?

The Statement says that,

“we will ensure that vulnerable children, including orphans, will be a priority”.

Just before we went into recess, there was a report about 600 young Afghans who had arrived in the United Kingdom as unaccompanied children who were deported after their 18th birthdays because their temporary leave to remain had expired. Many had already established strong roots in the communities where they were living. When we hear about the fact that we will give priority to vulnerable children including orphans, can we have some reassurance from the Government that they will not be summarily sent back after their 18th birthdays?

We will not resolve the Syrian refugee crisis unless there is a wider resolution to the Syrian problem. What steps have the Government taken to try to promote broader engagement with countries that might not at first instance appear likely to help, such as Russia and Iran, whose engagement will be necessary if we are to get a long-term lasting diplomatic settlement and tackle some of the root causes?

There is an immediate crisis on our doorstep. There are 2 million refugees in Turkey, 1.4 million in Jordan, and over 1 million in Lebanon. According to the UNHCR, there are 60 million displaced people worldwide, 46 million of whom are assisted and protected by the UNHCR. Developing countries host 86% of the world’s refugees. While we have an immediate problem, there is a much wider global problem. We have to play our part in the funding that we have given to the UNHCR but we should be trying our best to engage more countries, such as the Gulf states and the United States of America. Are we in a position to give some leadership to look to the future and tackle the global problems that will exist? We will return time and again to this issue, I suspect, because of its global nature.

The Prime Minister said earlier this week that Britain is a moral country. I believe that. I believe from what we have seen from communities and people across the country that we are a moral country, but I rather fear that this Statement falls short of a moral response.

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