The Court of Appeal ruled on 29 June that Rwanda was not a ‘safe third country’ and deporting asylum seekers there was unlawful. Given this judgement the drafters of the Illegal Migration Act might be complimented on their foresight in the wording of the bill’s title. The Act has been called unworkable, ‘morally unacceptable’ (Bishop Paul McAlennan) and ‘amounting to an asylum ban’ (the UNHCR). Its contents in their lack of human empathy could have been generated by AI. In the words of the Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, Sarah Teather, to “deny sanctuary to people who need it based on their mode of arrival is grotesquely cruel”.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has declared he will achieve what he calls his five ‘people’s priorities’. The fifth reads: “We will pass new laws to stop small boats, making sure that if you come to this country illegally, you are detained and swiftly removed”.
Last year some 90% of the boat people who reached the UK sought asylum. By the beginning of this year only 3% of them have received an initial decision from the Home Office. More than 135,000 asylum applicants were awaiting a decision, many of them in hotels paid for out of the UK aid budget; 89,000 of them had been waiting for more than six months. This is the context within which the Prime Minister has chosen to back this bad bill. Is he serious?
Sunak excuses the draconian contents of the Illegal Migration Act on grounds of compassion. 56 people, 11 of them children, are known to have drowned trying to cross the Channel since 2018. He argues that the people smugglers’ business model will collapse if would-be migrants believe they will be sent to Rwanda. If there were a well-funded special unit in the National Criminal Agency (NCA) dedicated to the arrest of these criminal gangs, if there were adequate accessible safe and legal routes for asylum seekers to get here, his compassion argument might carry conviction. If migration policy is compassion driven, why has the Conservative Party in the Commons voted down Lords amendments to the bill containing such provisions?
The Conservatives believe that their bill is a direct response to the democratic will, or, at least, the will of voters in the Red Wall constituencies who want to see an end to small boat crossings. And Kent County Council as well as Dover genuinely are overwhelmed because so few councils around the country are willing to ‘burden-share’ (and most of these are Labour Councils) - a microcosm of the European Union’s predicament.
But just how popular is the Illegal Migration Act? How many people are thinking this harsh action is not our idea of British values? In the House of Lords we were hearing voices speaking for another, kinder Britain: Lord Dubs, who before the Second World War was brought to Britain on the kindertransport, concerned for the needs and protection of unaccompanied children. Then there was Baroness Mobarik, who aged six accompanied her family from Pakistan to Glascow, speaking alongside David Walker, the Anglican Bishop of Manchester against government attempts to weaken limits on the detention of immigrant children and pregnant women. Isn’t the welcoming of Ukrainian refugees, in which we take pride, more in keeping with what we want Britain to be?
The under-appreciated Upper House of Parliament - without veto power - is doing its job, holding government to account, scrutinising its legislation and trying to make the bill less bad. Between 27 April and 10 July, peers worked on 20 pertinent, important and compassionate amendments. A large cross-Party group outvoted the Conservative peers on each of the amendments and sent the bill back to the Commons. (There had also been also 16 Conservatives in the Commons who denounced aspects of the bill and abstained during its initial readings – including former Home Secretary and Prime Minister, Theresa May).
In the Commons, the Government rejected the Lords’ amendments but did make small concessions agreeing not to weaken limits on the length of detention and removing retrospective provisions which would have made the bill operative from its introduction by the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, on 7 March 2023. The bill was sent back to the House of Lords, and on July 12 they accepted the rejection of their amendments. After deliberations the Lords returned the bill to the Commons with nine revised amendments - including two proposed by Tory peers. These sophisticated strokes in the Palace of Westminster ‘ping-pong’ were immediately and casually dismissed by the Immigration Minister, Robert Jenrick, who said the Government did not plan to make any further concessions.
The Government, with only a few days left, badly wants to get its legislation through Parliament before the summer recess. For this reason, the House of Lords has a small amount of leverage though it is improbable the Government will change the Act in any meaningful way. Parliamentary Acts of 1911 and 1949, together with unwritten constitutional convention, dictate that the unelected House of Lords should not block legislation by the elected House of Commons – especially measures promised in an Election Manifesto. No such pledge on migration was in the 2019 Tory manifesto. Sunak persists in alleging that he is fulfilling a ‘people’s pledge’ responding to public opinion. The peers have done all they are entitled to do within constitutional convention to make this bill humane.
The Conservative majority in the Commons means we will be saddled with this deeply unpleasant legislation. The Act enables the Government to interpret international human rights treaties and refugee conventions in ways not consistent with the UK’s obligations. The Government’s excuse for this shabby populism is a variation on Margaret Thatcher’s ‘there is no alternative’, alleging that the Act’s many critics do not offer any alternative. Consistent with our current politics of empty promises and brazen untruths, this is a lie.
There is a broad consensus amongst Churches and religious communities, NGOs, refugee organisations, as well as in the House of Lords on what needs to be done, starting with the creation of new safe and legal routes and serious investment in putting the criminal gangs behind bars. One of the Lords’ amendments - proposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and garnering not a single Tory vote - was a call for a UK-led strategic ten-year multi-lateral plan for handling immigration compassionately whilst countering the impact of conflict and climate change on sender countries. The Labour Party acting as a government-in-waiting has produced a strategic package of proposals consonant with the Archbishop’s call. His amendment was amongst those voted down in the Commons.
The boat people who pay the people smugglers are desperate and aware of the risks. Nothing is quickly going to stop the small boats. Nor will the Rwanda threat, least of all if the Supreme Court agrees with the Court of Appeal’s judgement. Opinion polls suggest many voters now believe only a new Government, a new and competent Home Secretary and a reformed Home Office can reduce the number of small boats and deal humanely with refugees entitled to this country’s protection.
See TheArticle 17/07/2023
I don’t want to be a killjoy but the mirth with which signs of Jo Biden’s age are greeted strikes me as mindless. Good for a few laughs on Have I got News for You. Look, ha, ha, ha, he’s just tumbled over a sandbag. Trump at his rallies will be laughing along too.
“If the measure of a man is his gait, speech and memory for trivialities, then we are lost”, declared a letter-writer to the New York Times on 7 June summing up the dilemma facing uncertain voters in next year’s US Presidential elections. Will Jo Biden at 81 with some of the frailties of old-age be up to the job?
The criminal investigations besetting Trump have only reinforced his cult status with his core vote. Can he count on Biden’s support eroding under withering scrutiny in the hostile media? Will the Republican campaign gain traction with each stumble, fall and wrong word?
Biden is often compared on the geriatric scale to the elderly – a decade younger actually – President Ronald Reagan. Reagan, aged 72, touched an approval low of 35% in early 1983 but in 1984 went on to win a second term in a landslide victory against the lackluster Walter Mondale. Like the actor he was, Reagan played the folksy grandfather and the American public, used to TV stereotypes, responded positively. President Biden’s performance is less assured. His approval ratings have been bumping along at around 41% for many months. Recently there has been a small tick upwards.
For Biden a better comparison than Reagan would be with President Lyndon Baines Johnson (1963-1969) whose knowledge of politics ‘on the Hill’ and around State governors was legendary. Biden too has brought stellar negotiating and deal-making skills as well as long experience to the Presidency. He has a talented and loyal team around him, with an outstanding Secretary of State, Antony Blinken though Kamala Harris as Vice-President is unpopular. Already the list of Biden’s executive orders and bills is impressive.
US Congressional Acts are complex composites and US congressional representatives are far more independent of any Party discipline than their British counterparts. Biden’s skills operating within this difficult terrain, made even more difficult by a politicised Supreme Court, are demonstrated by his handling of his portmanteau Build Back Better plan, a ‘blue-collar blueprint’ to win back poorer workers. When key parts were blocked in the Senate (as was his proposed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act) Biden made acceptable amendments and changed the bill’s name to the Inflation Reduction Act finally signed off on 16 August 2022. The prices of prescription drugs were lowered, offering $800 annual savings on health insurance for 13 million citizens, and providing investment of $369 billion over ten years for climate change mitigation and clean energy use. Taxation was tightened and steps approved to reduce national debt. The Act built on the eye-watering, job-creating, $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill signed on 15 November 2021.
Also in 2022, Biden’s Safer Communities Act included, amongst other minor provisions, enhanced background checks on under 21s buying guns. A tiny step forward but the first successful – bipartisan - attempt at gun control legislation in thirty years. And a bipartisan agreement concluded this year’s ritual ‘debt-ceiling crisis’ - it stood at an epic $31.4 trillion - enabling Biden to sign the Fiscal Responsibility Act on 3 June. But none of this stream of legislation seems to have impressed an American public; the perception is that the US economy is faring badly with the blame falling on Biden.
Aware that his approval rating for his overall handling of the economy was only 34%, Biden delivered a much-prepared speech in the Old Chicago Post Office on 28 June. He sounded distinctly Keynesian presenting what amounted to aggregate demand as the most important driving force in the economy and promising government intervention to increase output. These are all echoes of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Contrasting Democrat economic policy with Republican trickle down, he rejected, “the belief we should cut taxes for the wealthy and big corporations...that we should shrink public investment in infrastructure and public education”, thus summarising ‘Reaganomics’. Instead the economy should be built “from the middle out and the bottom up”. In a room festooned with ‘Bidenomics’ banners, an attack term used by the Republicans, the speech was a bold counter-branding exercise, not without risk.
Biden’s core electoral support lies amongst more educated and Black voters as well as to a lesser degree Latinos. US Catholics comprise a little over a quarter of the national vote. You might think the large Catholic community would support a fellow Catholic, and he did attract more support than Hillary Clinton, but about half voted for Trump in the 2020 Presidential elections. Despite an impressive record harmonising with official Catholic positions on climate change and social justice, Biden’s support for abortion provision will be an obstacle to deriving any significant electoral advantage from Catholic voters.
Americans largely agree with the Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade decision of 1973 which divided pregnancy into three phases. Opinion polls suggest 69% of Americans think abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy, 37% in the next three and 22% in the final. The respected Pew Foundation finds that 76% of US Catholics think abortion should be legal in some cases/contexts but amongst Catholics who attend mass regularly there is a significantly higher level of pro-life conviction.
Biden has made several attempts to address this problem. At a recent fundraiser for his re-election campaign, he spoke approvingly of the tri-partite division citing the first three months of a pregnancy as a matter for the family, the second three for the doctors and the third for the State – to ban or to allow when needed to save the mother’s life. “I’m a practicing Catholic”, he said. “I’m not big on abortion. But guess what? Roe v Wade got it right”. Pope Francis, while avoiding direct censure, described the President’s religious position as ‘incoherence’. US policy on migration across the southern border is also contrary to Church teaching as well as the practice of many US Catholics of welcoming and supporting Latin American incomers. But for Biden to adopt the Church’s official moral stance would most likely deliver the USA into Trump-dominated Republican hands.
In a democracy you cannot win over voters without making some concessions to popular opinion. And if you cannot win over voters you cannot win elections and achieve even incremental change. J.F. Kennedy made it clear that his catholicism would not influence his conduct of the US Presidency. Biden seems more equivocal, with his piety far more up-front, but makes necessary concessions. And with a man like Trump trumpeting around the country ever ready to divide and destroy we should not too easily condemn Biden’s à la carte catholicism. Nor laugh him out of court for manifestations of old-age. As Bette Davis once said: “Old age ain’t no place for sissies” - especially if it’s being jeered at.
See TheArticle 03/07/2023.