The government has been condemned by opposition MPs after overturning a House of Lords amendment to its Brexit legislation which would have restored the right of unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with their families in the UK.
Lord Alf Dubs, the Labour peer and former child refugee who drafted the amendment which would have guaranteed the rights, said it was “bitterly disappointing” that the government had ordered Conservative MPs to oppose the measure.
The amendment, passed in the Lords on Tuesday, was rejected in the Commons by 342 votes to 254. All those who voted against the measure were Conservatives.
“What could be more humane than asking that unaccompanied child refugees stranded in Europe be able to join relatives in this country?” Dubs said in a tweet.
It was among five amendments passed by peers to the EU withdrawal agreement bill, which puts the government’s Brexit deal into law, which have now been overturned. Under the process known as ping-pong the bill will now return to the Lords, where peers will be expected to accede to MPs’ views.
Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow home secretary, said the government was “attempting to shirk its moral and legal obligation to child refugees and their families”.
She said: “The Tory manifesto just a month ago claimed they would continue to support refugees, and even that they would increase that support. This is a shameful betrayal of those promises.”
Stuart McDonald, the SNP’s immigration spokesperson, said: “Rather than stepping up and playing its role in addressing the refugee crisis, the toxic Tory government has instead lurched to the extremes and closed the door on some of the most vulnerable children in the world.”
Dubs, who came to the UK as a Kindertransport child refugee after fleeing Prague in 1939, has urged the government to enshrine the principle of family reunion for child refugees fleeing conflict post-Brexit.
Responding later in the Lords, Dubs said he noted government promises to make a statement on the issue in the next couple of months, saying ministers should ensure they explained how they would make sure the system was ready for the start of 2021, when the Brexit transition period ends.
While the measure was originally in the bill, it was removed after December’s election victory for Boris Johnson, with the government insisting they will stick to the commitment, but do not see the need to put this into a Brexit bill.
“The government’s policy is unchanged. Delivering on it will not require legislation,” Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary, told MPs as he explained to the Commons why ministers opposed the amendment.
“Primary legislation cannot deliver the best outcomes for these children as it cannot guarantee that we will 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 these negotiations.”
Barclay came under pressure from MPs to explain his reasoning. Yvette Cooper, the Labour ex-chair of the home affairs committee, said she did not understand the active decision to remove the measure from the bill.
“There’s loads of things in legislation through the decades that the government says it agrees with and so it says it’s not needed, but it doesn’t remove it from the statute book,” she said. “And that is what makes us all suspicious.”
Barclay replied: “The reason is the purpose of this legislation is to implement in domestic law the international agreement we’ve reached.”
On Tuesday, the government was also defeated in the Lords on an amendment seeking to reassure Scotland and Wales on devolution powers.
On Monday evening it had suffered three other defeats: on an amendment requiring EU citizens living in the UK to be given physical proof of their legal status; an amendment removing the power of ministers to decide which courts should have the power to depart from European court of justice judgments; and an amendment allowing cases to be referred to the supreme court to decide whether to depart from EU case law.
All five were voted down by MPs on Wednesday.