Brandon Lewis’s letter to all MPs ahead of a Commons vote on Wednesday suggests “worried Tories are demanding answers from ministers over the policy” on child refugees, a Labour source claimed.
The Home Office and Brexit minister acknowledged “several members” had “recognised the importance” of the issue after the prime minister stripped from his Brexit deal legal protections for unaccompanied child refugees.
They would have placed the government under an obligation to negotiate with the EU a continuation of the rights of child refugees stranded in Europe to be reunited with their family in the UK after Brexit.
The protections were written into the original withdrawal agreement bill (WAB) by Theresa May after a campaign led by Lord Dubs - who fled to the UK from the Nazis via a Kindertransport when he was six years old - but removed by Johnson.
The PM instead plans to replace the commitment with a much reduced obligation to simply make statements to parliament on the government’s child refugee policy after Brexit.
MPs will vote on whether to reinstate the so-called Dubs amendment on Wednesday. But, with his new 80-seat majority, Johnson is likely to emerge victorious.
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Lewis stressed the government remains “fully committed” to “the principle of family unity” and supporting “the most vulnerable” children.
He stressed government policy “has not changed” and that removing the protections from the bill was about ensuring the government has “full flexibility” to negotiate a long-term post-Brexit relationship with the EU without having to worry about obligations set by parliament.
It is understood he wrote to MPs to ensure they have a commitment in writing that the government will continue to protect child refugees.
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott told HuffPost UK: “Tory ministers are failing to assure us that their policy towards refugees has not changed with Brexit.
“But there is no reassurance at all from maintaining a policy which prevents children from coming here, even though that is their legal entitlement.
“Ministers have also removed the obligation to negotiate with other EU member states, which gives them even greater scope to refuse legitimate asylum claims.
“It’s time this government fulfilled its moral and legal obligations to these most vulnerable children.”
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Christine Jardine told HuffPost UK: “No MPs should be fooled by Conservative ministers’ pathetic attempt to justify repealing our commitment to child refugees.
“This is nothing other than a PR exercise to try and hide the fact they’re turning their back on vulnerable children.
“The only way to ensure we keep safe and legal routes to sanctuary for child refugees is to reject the government’s heartless amendment, and that is what Liberal Democrat MPs will vote to do.
“We hope that any brave and principled Conservative MPs will join us.”
In his letter to MPs, Lewis said: “The prime minister made clear the importance this government places on ensuring that unaccompanied children who are seeking international protection in an EU member state can continue to be reunited with specified family members who are in the UK, as well as children in the UK with family in the EU, following the UK’s exit from the EU,” he said.
“This remains a negotiating objective of this government.
“It is also important to note that the UK will continue to reunite unaccompanied children with children with family members in the UK under the Dublin regulation during the implementation period, processing and deciding all ‘take back’ requests that have been submitted.
“The new clause 37 in the EU (withdrawal agreement) bill is primarily about clarifying the role of government and parliament in negotiations.
“It is right that the statutory obligation to negotiate previously contained in section 17 of the withdrawal act is removed and not retained by this amendment, so that the traditional division between government and parliament be restored, and the negotiations ahead can be carried out with full flexibility and in an appropriate manner across all policy areas.”
MPs will debate and vote on a raft of amendments as Johnson’s WAB, which puts his Brexit deal into law, passes through the Commons this week.
But the deal is widely expected to emerge unscathed as opposition MPs lack the numbers to win votes following the election.
The Lib Dems are also hoping to ensure the government commits to replacing EU funding, worth about £2.1bn a year, after Brexit with a UK shared prosperity fund.
Lib Dem MP Daisy Cooper said: “This funding is vital for charities that help some of the most vulnerable here in the UK.
“If Boris Johnson’s government refuse to provide detailed plans for how they will replace this funding once we leave the EU, they are turning their back on some of those most in need.
“The Liberal Democrats have tabled this amendment to urge the Conservatives to come forward with plans to offer some certainty to the poorest in our society.”