Britain “needs to do even more” to help refugees from Syria, Chancellor George Osborne has said, as he called for a “fundamental rethink” of how the UK uses its international aid budget.
Mr Osborne told the BBC money from the £12bn budget could be diverted to councils helping to house refugees.
The PM has said the UK will take in “thousands” more refugees from Syria.
Mr Osborne also said ministers should make the argument for military action against Islamic State militants there.
European countries are dealing with a surge of people fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, particularly from Syria and Afghanistan, and abuses in Eritrea.
In other developments:
- Charities said the British public’s response to the refugee crisis had been“extraordinary”, with hundreds of thousands of pounds raised so far
- Calls for the UK to do more intensified after the publication of a picture of the body of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach
- The Scottish government pledged £1m for Scotland’s response to the crisis
- A petition calling for Britain to take more refugees received more than 400,000 signatures
Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show, Mr Osborne would not confirm how many people the UK would take in, but said Prime Minister David Cameron would make a Commons statement on the issue on Monday.
Mr Osborne said the UK would focus on helping refugees directly from Syria.
He said: “While helping people in desperate need, we should not encourage more families to make that desperately dangerous journey across the Mediterranean and so we think we should go directly to these refugee camps and help people and bring people from those camps to the United Kingdom.”
Under existing schemes, the government offers financial support for Syrians resettled in the UK for 12 months.
How could the plan work?
Mr Cameron’s plan to take in thousands more refugees suggests he may expand the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation (VPR) scheme – although this has not been confirmed.
Under VPR, 216 Syrians have been brought to the UK since March 2014.
People arriving in the UK in need of protection usually have to apply for asylum – and if this is granted they get “refugee” status.
But people brought to Britain under VPR have not gone through this process. Instead, they have been granted Humanitarian Protection, a status normally used for people who “don’t qualify for asylum” but would be at “real risk of suffering serious harm” in their home country.
Like people granted refugee status, those given Humanitarian Protection can stay for five years, after which they can apply to settle in the UK.
People in both categories have the right to work and access public funds.
Mr Osborne went on: “We need to make an assessment of what our public services and infrastructure can support.
“But let me say this, the foreign aid budget we have – and we’ve increased this foreign aid budget – can provide the support in the first year for these refugees, can help local councils with things like housing costs.”
He explained there was scope for the UK to increase the amount it spends because the international aid budget is tied to the UK’s GDP – a figure used to measure economic activity – which grew by 2.6% in 2014.
On the possibility of UK military intervention in Syria, Mr Osborne said the government was unlikely to put forward another Commons vote unless it knew it was likely to win parliamentary support.
In August 2013 MPs rejected UK military action in Syria by 285-272. Mr Osborne described it as “one of the worst decisions the House of Commons has ever made”.
He said: “Personally I think, the prime minister thinks, the defence secretary and the foreign secretary – we all think there is a strong case, and indeed an argument around coherence, that if you’re tackling Isis (IS) on one side of the Iraqi border you should be attacking on the other side in Syria.”
The RAF has been carrying out airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq since September 2014 after MPs voted for military action in the country.
But Labour’s shadow home secretary and leadership contender, Yvette Cooper, said she took a “cautious view” on whether the party would support UK military action in Syria.
She told Sky News: “The big question for all of us should be where is the diplomatic effort coming from to get Syria, to get Russia, Iran, the Gulf states, the US, [the] EU, all pulling together to try to find a long-term sustainable solution.”