PMQs verdict: Cameron dodges questions on the Government’s refugee plan

9th September, 2015 2:49 pm

Parliament Commons PMQs

Today was the first PMQs of this parliament and the last for Harriet Harman as Labour’s interim leader. Next week the party’s new leader will take her place at the dispatch box. Harman used all of her questions to ask David Cameron about the refugee crisis and the Government’s half-hearted change of tack on the issue.

On the face of it Cameron has bowed to public pressure; he announced on Monday that the UK will take in 20,000 refugees over the next five years.  Today his responses seemed to reflect this change of tack; conveniently forgotten were his description of refugees and migrants as a “swarm” just last month and the Government’s decision last year to withdraw support for search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. He said he is acting with “head and heart”, but his position remains riddled with inconsistencies and holes.

Harman repeatedly questioned Cameron to put a number on the amount of people who will come in the first year of the five. The PM refused to answer and when Harman asked if Cameron would consult and decide on a figure in the next month, he evaded the question, again. “There’s no limit to the amount of people that could come in the first year” – that really doesn’t mean all that much. Labour and pro-refugee campaigners are keen to get a figure from the PM because he hasn’t always shown compassion for asylum seekers; 216 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the UK to date, while 5,000 people have been granted asylum since 2011. Meanwhile, earlier this year the Government slashed the support payments going to asylum seekers with children by up to 30 per cent.

But it’s not just that the time frame is too long; the number is too low. Germany will take in 800,000 refugees this year while France will take in 24,000 people over two years. The British Government’s offer? 20,000 people over five years. If this figure is averaged is out it amounts to 31 refugees in each constituency or 1 refugee for every 3,230 citizen in Britain. That’s a dismally low number of people.

Harman then directed questions to Cameron over the issue of refugees in Europe. The Government have ruled out taking refugees from Southern Europe, and they won’t take in any people from the refugee camps in Calais. Harman asked the Cameron to rethink the former. Again the PM dodged dealing with the question, relying on his favourite answer: taking in more refugees will act as a “pull factor” and encourage more people to come to Europe. This simply isn’t the case. In fact it’s the exact same justification the Government used to withdraw support for search and rescue operation Mare Nostrum last November. Since then the number of people who have died trying to cross the Mediterranean has been on a steady rise since the start of this year; over 2,500 people – children, women and men – have died so far in 2015. They do so because they’re leaving their home country often due to conflict and poverty (‘push’ factors) , not because of ‘pull’ factors.

But Cameron wasn’t willing to shift.

Missing from Harman’s questions was any mention of the two British citizens and jihadis who were fighting for Isis in Syria, Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin, executed in August. Cameron made public these state killings on Monday. It was approved by the Attorney General and earlier this week Harman urged the government to publish the legal advice. This could be an issue for Labour’s next leader to take up next week – whoever that may be.

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