Campaigner of the Week: Lord Dubs

Posted On: 
17th January 2020

This week, Lord Dubs talks to Georgina Bailey about family reunification for unaccompanied child refugees after Brexit

Lord Alf Dubs on stage addressing a rally in Parliament Square after taking part in the Refugees Welcome March in September 2016
Credit: 
Yui Mok/PA Archive/PA Images

Who

Lord Dubs, Labour peer

What

Lord Dubs is challenging the Government on continuing provisions for unaccompanied child refugees post Brexit. Under current EU rules, an unaccompanied child refugee in one EU country can apply to join relatives in another; Dubs successfully amended the 2018 EU Withdrawal Act to make maintaining this arrangement between the EU and the UK a negotiating objective for the Government. However, clause 37 in the new WAB overwrites this, and instead commits the Government to making a statement on future arrangements in two months’ time. “We were very surprised,” Dubs says of the Government’s decision. “People felt they [the Government] were turning their backs on this”.

A Labour amendment fell victim to the Government’s new-found majority in the Commons earlier this month. But as far as Dubs is concerned, the “surprise” change to the WAB isn’t covered by the Salisbury convention, and so he’s now leading the charge again to overturn it from the red benches. An amendment removing clause 37 in the names of Baroness Hamwee, Lord Kerr, The Lord Bishop of Durham and Dubs himself has been tabled, with a vote expected on Monday or Tuesday.

Why

For Dubs, legal paths to safety for refugee children is a “fundamentally humanitarian” issue, with this now his third parliamentary showdown on the topic in the four years. He is confused by the Government’s decision to overturn his successful 2018 amendment: “The numbers [of children] aren’t large but there is important principle in that… By doing it this way, it looks like they’re against it. It’s silly. Either they are against it, in which case they’re being nasty, or they’re not against, in which case they’re being stupid and incompetent.” 

The Government says that it remains firmly committed to allowing reunification of unaccompanied child refugees, but that, firstly, this Bill is not the place for it, and secondly, the Government does not want its hands tied in negotiations with the EU. Dubs is unconvinced by the suggestion he waits for an as yet ill-defined Immigration Bill for a guarantee: “We don’t know what would be in scope”.

He is also quick to point out that there is as already a clause in the WAB that impacts the Government’s negotiating position by making it illegal for any minister to request an extension to the transition period – what makes his amendment any different, Dubs asks? “Frankly I think they’re in a muddle”.

How

For most of his career, Dubs didn’t think it was “appropriate” to discuss his own escape from Prague on the Kindertransport in 1939: “I think the argument for helping child refugees should not depend upon the personal background of the individual putting the argument”.

He recognises, however, the positive impact of the publicity gained in 2016, and has again made several media appearances. “It’s public support we need… Whatever the arguments going on about immigration generally, on child refugees the British public are essentially humanitarian in their attitudes”. 

Dubs has been working to build support across both Houses for the amendment since the new WAB’s publication. While warning against “counting the votes before they’ve happened”, Dubs is encouraged by the cross-party response. He believes these efforts have the Government concerned – a contingent of three ministers and seven officials met with him ahead of the amendment being moved to try and convince him to change his mind. Unsurprisingly, the Labour peer was not convinced.

Next steps

Dubs’ plan of action all rather depends on the result of the vote. If, “with luck on our side”, the amendment is successful and the Government find their majority on the issue reduced in the Commons, then he is hopeful. However, if it either doesn’t pass in the Lords or the politics of ping-pong prove to be too much, then the Government shouldn’t get their hopes up for an easy ride on their “firm commitment” in the future. “We will certainly use the Immigration Bill and any other means”, he promises with a smile, “I shall have all the quotes”.