Lord Alf Dubs has said he is “worried” that ministers’ promise to protect lone child refugees after Brexit is currently too “pie in the sky” to believe and could be watered down.
Ministers have responded to criticism of Boris Johnson’s decision to strip from his Brexit deal protections of family reunion rights for child refugees by insisting they will restore them in the forthcoming immigration bill.
But Lord Dubs, who came to the UK on a kindertransport as a child refugee fleeing the Nazis, told HuffPost UK he was “worried” that ministers’ promise to allow child refugees to be reunited with “specified family members” after Brexit could signal a tightening of the rules.
The charity Safe Passage has described the language as “extremely ominous”, warning it could mean child refugees only being allowed to join parents and not other family members like siblings.
Lord Dubs met Home Office officials on Monday evening but said they failed to reassure him.
He will now look to force a defeat on Johnson’s government in a crunch Lords vote on his child refugees amendment early next week.
“Given I’ve committed up to the hilt there would have to be something fantastically clear cut and they’ve given me nothing except pie in the sky,” the Labour peer told HuffPost UK.
“I’m worried about it.
“They might worry about the definition when it comes back.”
He added: “I’m not convinced this is sufficiently watertight. This could change – all sorts of things could happen.”
Lord Dubs also raised concerns that the assurances given by Brexit minister Brandon Lewis may be worth nothing after Johnson carries out a major reshuffle of his team next month.
“I said: ‘I trust you, I don’t trust the government, and you might not be ministers in the same jobs in two months,’” the peer said.
“If they wanted to do it, they could give me a better assurance. They could give me something much more clear cut.
“I think it’s ill advised – I think they are scoring an own goal.
“Because this went through, it’s very straightforward and if you are taking it out of the bill you are sending a signal you are not interested in child refugees, even if you are.”
Lord Dubs said ministers told him they did not want parliament to tie their hands in the upcoming negotiations on a long-term UK-EU relationship.
“That’s disgraceful, because then they are saying they want to use child refugees as a negotiating chip,” he said.
“They did say to me they want flexibility in the negotiations but that makes it a negotiating chip.”
He added: “To suggest they should then negotiate the rights of refugee children against something else is, I think, scandalous.”
Even if Lord Dubs’ amendment passes in the Lords, MPs will almost certainly overturn it given Johnson’s 80-seat majority.
But the peer said he was in contact with Conservatives who are concerned about the government’s approach.
“Some of them may speak against the government, but I don’t think many will vote – I think they will just abstain,” he said.
“Some of them have said to me they are having discussions behind the scenes with the government because they are not happy.”
Lord Dubs added: “These are kids who are sitting in terrible conditions in what’s left of the Jungle in Calais, sleeping under tarpaulins in trees, or in terrible conditions on the Greek islands. These are awful circumstances.”
In response, security minister Brandon Lewis said: “I welcomed the opportunity to meet with Lord Dubs and reaffirm our commitment to seeking an agreement with the EU for the family reunion of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. We do not require the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to achieve this.
“We have a proud record of helping vulnerable children in this country, including granting protection to 41,000 unaccompanied minors since 2010, and this will remain our priority.”