Jeremy Corbyn Leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition 4:25 pm, 21st March 2016
I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of about half his statement. Let me deal with the points that he made in order.
The refugee crisis that Europe currently faces is the largest since the end of the second world war. There are more displaced people in the world now than there have been at any time in recorded history. Thousands of people have died making perilous journeys across the Mediterranean and in other places around the world.
As an advanced, democratic, civilised nation, we have a duty to reach out the hand of humanity, support and friendship to people who are going through the most disastrous time of their lives.
We should also recognise that a disproportionate burden has been placed on Syria’s neighbours. Jordan and Lebanon have accepted a very large number of refugees, as has Turkey. Among the European countries, Italy and Greece, as border countries, have done far more than anyone else, but Germany and Sweden have taken a very large number of asylum seekers. There has not been a balanced response throughout Europe.
Has the Prime Minister had a chance to read the statement made by Amnesty International at the weekend, after the agreement was reached? Amnesty is normally noted for its cautious use of words and the careful way in which it describes things; it is, after all, an organisation dedicated to human rights and the rule of law. The statement reads as follows:
“Guarantees to scrupulously respect international law are incompatible with the touted return to Turkey of all irregular migrants arriving on the Greek islands as of Sunday. Turkey is not a safe country for refugees and migrants, and any return process predicated on its being so will be flawed, illegal”, and it goes on to register further concerns. I ask the Prime Minister to respond carefully to the very reasonable points put by Amnesty International.
Will the Prime Minister confirm that when Greece receives asylum seekers from Turkey, they will all be interviewed individually? Will he confirm that they will all have access to interpreters, a right to a hearing and a right of appeal, even if the interviewing is done by officials who have come from other countries on behalf of the European Union? Will he confirm that those who are returned to Turkey will have similar rights there, and that they will, in turn, be properly treated? He must be well aware of the deep concern that many people feel about the recent events in Turkey, particularly the imprisonment of journalists who have attempted to speak out about a number of matters.
It is clear that the issue of the number of people seeking asylum in Europe is heavily bound up with the wars that have taken place, or continue to take place. The Prime Minister rightly spoke of the need for a political settlement in Syria and in Libya. Can he give us some information on progress that may have been made towards bringing about a political settlement in Syria that will enable people to return to their own homes, and to lead safe and secure lives? The situation in Libya is equally perilous for many people, especially those in insecure refugee camps.
The Prime Minister will be well aware that many of those who seek asylum in other countries make the perilous journeys to which I have referred. They also end up in refugee camps with very limited facilities, despite the great work done by volunteers. I have visited the camps in Calais and Dunkirk, which are in an appalling state. Those people are in a very perilous situation. They are all humans, to whom we must reach out the hand of friendship and support.
I recognise that the British Government have paid a great deal of money through the Department for International Development to support refugees in camps around the world. I recognise the work of the Royal Navy in plucking people from the sea and saving them from drowning. However, the Prime Minister still seems to be stuck in the narrative of saying that Britain will accept only 20,000 refugees over the next four years and that they will be taken from camps in the region, not from those facing problems as they get stuck while travelling across Europe. Can we not for once, please, Prime Minister, co-operate with every other European country on a European-wide response to the crisis engulfing the lives of so many people, rather than avoid our responsibilities?
In the advance copy I received of about half of the Prime Minister’s statement, he went on to talk about the VAT on sanitary products and one or two other issues, but he then delivered a much longer speech on many other things. The House should pay great tribute to my hon. Friend Paula Sherriff for her work on trying to eliminate this unfair tax.
The Prime Minister is here today, the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is here today, and practically every other Cabinet Minister is here today, but what has happened to the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Where is he? Instead of covering for his friend, could the Prime Minister not have asked him whether he would be kind enough to come along to the House to explain why, for the first time in Parliament in my memory, a Government’s Budget has fallen apart within two days of its delivery? There is an enormous hole in the Budget which has been brought about through a possible temporary retreat on changes to personal independence payments. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that there will be no further cuts to the Department for Work and Pensions budget and that more people with disabilities will not face more cuts as the years go on? Can he tell us why he is still defending a Budget that not only has inequality and a tax on the disabled and the poorest in our country at its core, but provides tax relief to the richest and the biggest corporations? The Budget has a big hole in it and it is up to the Prime Minister to persuade his great friend the Chancellor to come here to explain how he will fill that hole. Perhaps the Chancellor should consider his position and look for something else to do, because he clearly has not been successful at producing a balanced Budget that is in the interests of everyone in the country, particularly those with disabilities.