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