Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is preparing to announce that the UK will take in refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria, in what is seen as a significant change in Conservative policy.
The new approach was signalled today by the Foreign Secretary William Hague – three days before Labour will force a House of Commons vote on whether the UK should play its part in a United Nations initiative to settle 30,000 Syrian refugees across the developed world.
Until last week, David Cameron and members of the Cabinet insisted that Britain’s role was to help try to solve the conflict and ease the suffering of Syrians still in the country or in the crowded camps just beyond its border.
The Prime Minister is under intense pressure from Tory MPs to limit immigration generally.
But Mr Hague confirmed that a hint dropped by Mr Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions last week is now government policy, and that a limited number of the “most vulnerable” Syrians will be allowed into the UK after all. He twice dodged the question of whether by “most vulnerable” he referred specifically to Syria’s Christians.
He told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show: “The Home Secretary is working on that and we’ll have more to say on that in the coming days. I think there is a case f or particularly helping people who are particularly vulnerable.”
Asked if this was a reference to Christians, Mr Hague said: “Well, no, that’s what the Home Secretary is working on, how we try to help people who actually might need to get away from that region altogether, who are particularly vulnerable to violence... this is still being worked on, so we’ll have to let, the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary discuss that further.”
Mr Hague added the main thrust of Britain’s involvement in the Syrian tragedy will continue to be trying to help those who are still caught up in the crisis.
“Britain is the second most generous country in the world when it comes to giving humanitarian aid to people inside and around Syria,” he said.
The Foreign Secretary’s remarks received a guarded welcome from Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper. “Last week Theresa May and the Home Office strongly opposed resettlement of vulnerable refugees, calling it ‘token’ and the Prime Minister opposed the UN programme,” she said.
“William Hague adopted a very different tone today, and I hope the Home Secretary has been persuaded to change policy. However, ministers mustn’t just produce a fudge. The best way to help is for Britain to do its bit as part of the UN programme. This is about sanctuary for those fleeing persecution, its not about immigration policy or border control, and it is important that the Home Office doesn’t confuse the two.”
Mr Cameron’s earlier refusal to talk of taking in Syrian refugees had been an embarrassment to some coalition supporters, especially after the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage outmanoeuvred the government by echoing Labour’s call that the West has a responsibility to take in some of Syria’s displaced population.
The former Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, said: “If this represents a genuine change of heart on the part of the Government, it is to be welcomed.
“The United Kingdom, of all countries, should not be ignoring the legitimate requests of the United Nations on refugees. The children of Syria have paid a terrible price. Surely we can find room for those who have suffered most.
“We should not allow our moral compass to be set by [UK Independence Party leader] Nigel Farage.”