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MPs have voted to leave protections for lone child refugees out of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.
It came after peers defeated the government to reinsert guarantees around the right of unaccompanied child refugees to family reunion in the UK after Brexit.
The prime minister refused to back down to the Lords’ demands, overturning by 342 votes to 254, a majority of 88, the amendment proposed by Lord Dubs, who himself came to the UK as a child refugee fleeing the Nazis on a Kindertransport.
Lord Dubs had asked MPs to “show what they’re made of” and back his amendment to ensure ministers negotiated a continuation of the right of lone child refugees, based in Europe after fleeing war or persecution, to be reunited with family members in the UK after Brexit.
Ministers have repeatedly promised Lord Dubs they would maintain the same rights after Brexit but stressed that they did not want their hands tied on a future relationship with the EU ahead of the second stage of Brexit negotiations.
Brexit secretary Steve Barclay told the Commons: “Primary legislation cannot deliver the best outcomes for these children as it cannot guarantee that we reach an agreement and that is why this is ultimately a matter which must be negotiated with the EU and the government is committed to seeking the best possible outcome in those negotiations.”
Labour chair of the home affairs committee in the last parliament Yvette Cooper said: “That is what makes us all suspicious, that he [Barclay] wants to remove it [from the bill] because there’s some reason why he thinks it will restrict what he wants to do and therefore that he’s going to, in the end, betray the commitments that have been made to the most vulnerable children of all.
“If he won’t, keep it in the act.”
Shadow Brexit minister Thangam Debbonaire added: “This government has asked us to trust them and on all of these matters. Why should we need to rely on trust?
“We are lawmakers. Why not include this in the legislation? After all, the prime minister has changed his mind many times on many things.”
She added: “The government’s predecessor government has got form on this, promising to take 3,000 children on the Dubs scheme, as originally committed to, and taking fewer than 500 in the end.”
Global children’s charity Unicef urged the government to replicate the approach to child refugees provided for by EU rules, known as Dublin III.
Liam Sollis, head of policy at Unicef UK, said: “The UK leaving the EU at the end of this month should not leave vulnerable children without recourse to family reunion.
“The government assure us that their position on family reunion for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children has not changed and we welcome the actions taken thus far to ensure Dublin III forms part of ongoing negotiations with the EU.
“It’s vital that UK’s own domestic rules are amended to replicate Dublin III and ensure that all refugee children, irrespective of where they are in the world, have the right to join extended family living in the UK.
“Unicef UK urges the government to ensure vulnerable unaccompanied refugee children have a safe and legal route to extended family members such as aunts, uncles and grandparents living here in the UK.”
The bill will now return to the Lords in a round of parliamentary “ping-pong”.
The government has already overturned a Lords defeat on the right of EU workers legally residing in the UK to have physical proof of their right to remain, and has also done the same with the power of courts to depart from European Court of Justice rulings.
Ministers are also rejecting a move underlining the commitment to the so-called Sewel Convention, which states that the UK parliament “will not normally” legislate for devolved matters without the consent of the devolved legislature affected.