Nicky Morgan is a former Education Secretary, and is MP for Loughborough.
I was just about to put pen to paper to write this article when this e-mail from a constituent popped up:
“Sadly, my loyalty to, and patience with the Tory Party is at an end. I can no longer conscionably claim to support a party that’s largely run by people who seem hell-bent on damaging, if not completely destroying, our relationship with our mainland European neighbours, on driving the NHS onto the rocks (or into the private sector?) and on closing our doors to migrants in desperate need of our humanity. I used to think that the Tory Party, whilst possessing a broad church of views, was sufficiently anchored to the centre ground to let open-minded, liberal views rise to the surface…”
Leaving the EU and Brexit issues to one side, since I covered them in my last column on this site, I was already planning to write about the announcement last week by Robert Goodwill, the Immigration Minister, that the number of children to be transferred under section 67 of the Immigration At 2016 – more commonly known as the Dubs amendment – would be set at 350. Contrary to subsequent reports, the scheme is not ending – but this number has been set until the end of this financial year.
I was already part of a group of MPs requesting a debate in the Commons on the issue of unaccompanied children in Greece and Italy. This has been granted by the Backbench Business Committee, and the debate will take place on February 23rd.
The proceedings will be very timely after the Minister’s statement. Harry Phibbs made an important point in his ToryDiary on ConservativeHome last Saturday in saying that councils are to blame for not taking more refugees. The Home Office has been explicit in saying that the number they have set – 400 “Dubs children” – has been agreed on the basis of the capacity that local authorities say they have to deal with the care of such children. I hope they can be strongly encouraged and challenged to take more, given the financial support on offer, and the moral case for doing so.
Across the UK, there are 217 upper-tier and unitary local authorities with responsibility for children’s services – meaning that the 400 Dubs children don’t even equate to two unaccompanied children per local authority.
While the issues of immigration, integration, how we treat those seeking refuge and, in particular, how we look after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children matter as policy questions in their own right, our approach to them also goes to the heart of the kind of Party we want to be. And the kind of country we want to lead and to live in.
I will never forget one Saturday morning, several years ago, when I was knocking on doors in Loughborough. I suddenly became aware that a gentleman was trying to get my attention from his front garden. As regular canvassers will know, most residents do their best to avoid us or keep conversations short. So I walked over, hoping that I wasn’t going to be berated about potholes or the cutting of the grass verges. Instead, he said I was the first “official” person he had seen on his doorstep since moving there, and he wanted to say thank you to this country for giving him and his family their safety and the opportunity to rebuild their lives, since they had come from Iraq. I was rather lost for words, but heartened by how much he loved living here.
As a party known for strong economic management, the Conservatives must work doubly hard to avoid appearing to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Before the 2015 election, Lynton Crosby was very keen that Ministers doing media didn’t just talk about policy pledges, but also went on to make the link about why these pledges mattered.
The announcement about the Dubs scheme has, so far, sounded as if the costs of the scheme and the perceived capacity of local councils are enough for us to stop giving refuge, and the opportunity of a brighter and more secure future, to some of the most vulnerable children on the planet. Last year, 30,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Greece and Italy. Thousands of these children arrived alone and are highly vulnerable, living in a state of perpetual uncertainty and at risk of exploitation and abuse by traffickers. Many are victims of modern slavery – an issue the Prime Minister has rightly prioritised. No parent puts their child through the ordeal of a dangerous sea crossing without the situation being very, very bad in the place that they are leaving.
Empathy, tone and explaining our motivations go a long way in politics. If a tough decision has to be made, then Ministers have to explain why they have made their decision and, in this case, how hard they have pressed local authorities.
This announcement will not, on its own, make people decide which party they will or will not support at a future election. But it, and similar decisions, will have a cumulative impact on the future decisions made by constituents like the one who e-mailed me. It will form the basis of the judgments they make about the motivations of the Conservative Party. Britain has always been a global, outward-facing country as well as being compassionate to those who need our help most. The Conservative Party now needs to demonstrate that combination in our approach to issues such as the Dubs children.