Alastair Harper is Government relations manager at UNICEF.
There is a test political commentators sometimes put to politicians’ commitments – would anyone ever disagree? The idea being that if it would not be politically tenable to do the opposite then the commitment has little value.
For instance, being the guardian of hardworking families means little as no politician would ever call for such families to face severe penalties to dissuade them of their hard work.
It’s a rule that may work for the blandest of political statements but, actually, what politicians choose to highlight matter. Because highlighting is prioritising. Few disagree with the science of climate change but few politicians shout about it.
The refugee crisis is another example. Not many mainstream politicians are going to be openly against supporting refugees. But actually taking action to support those fleeing war, disaster or persecution is a major political commitment requiring international action, which in turn has a big knock on impact on our local authorities. Talk about it and you might have to do something about it.
Which brings us to the Home Secretary. At first, she was relatively quiet on the issue of refugees. When pushed to discuss it in Parliament at the start of September she told Yvette Cooper “[You] may already be aware of this, but I point out to the general public that that is French territory and it is French law that we have to engage with in order to help those people.”
However, those watching closely noticed her rhetoric started to change as the autumn months went on. The first glimpse of a clearer, more ambitious response to the refugee crisis in Europe came in her conference speech: “compassion does not stop at the border,” she told the room. “There are vulnerable, unaccompanied children in Calais at risk of people trafficking and abuse. Where those children have a relative in the UK, or it is in their best interests to come to the UK, we are doing all we can to bring them over here.”
But the major moment of a new approach came on 10th October, she was called to Parliament by an Urgent Question from David Burrowes on the upcoming closure of the camp. Her response was clear:
“We should transfer from the camp as many minors as possible eligible under the Dublin regulation before clearance commences, with the remainder coming over within the next few days of the operation. I also outlined my views that those children eligible under the Dubs amendment to the Immigration Act 2016 must be looked after in safe facilities where their best interests are properly considered. The UK Government stand ready to help to fund such facilities and provide the resourcing to aid the decision making.”
Clear words with clear actions. It was a striking moment and a big change in Home Office strategy. Most of the Parliamentarians present, readied for a feisty exchange, realised it and scrapped their prepared statements.
Since that speech we’ve seen a major shift in resources and activity from the Home Office. Around 800 children have been brought from France to safety in the UK since her response to David Burrowes. Last year the number was zero.
Of course, circumstances have conspired to help the Home Secretary. Hundreds of thousands of people across the UK made clear they wanted their government to do the right thing, amplified by many tireless campaigners. MPs such as David Burrowes, Heidi Allen, and Yvette Cooper have eloquently pushed the issue in the chamber.
The horrific images from the rubble of Aleppo, the shores of Greece, and the tarpaulin makeshift tents of Calais have been hard to ignore. Finally, the demolition of the Calais camp gave the opportunity to act. But the important thing is the Home Secretary took that opportunity.
As Robert Caro readers will appreciate, how politicians make and use opportunities given to them is revealing. As it happens, when Rudd held the climate change brief, she acted in a similar way – initial caution, before ramping up and delivering when the opportunity came at the Paris climate deal this time last year.
Two major political acts both, coincidentally, in France. They show Amber Rudd is one of those politicians that does not waste a good opportunity.
There is far more the UK needs to do on the refugee crisis. More is needed to help children overcome the barriers they face once they arrive in the UK. And while we have seen many children brought from France, it is striking that the vast majority of them will have travelled through Greece and Italy to get to Calais. From there, we have transferred just five children this year. A pitiful sum and the reason the Home Office needs to ensure its teams in those countries develop a process that actually works for children with a right to be in the UK.
Until the rules work for all children, they will continue to be forced into the hands of criminals as they try to reach safety. That is the Home Secretary’s the next challenge, but given her record I would back her taking it on.