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Lords Set To Curb Detention Of Pregnant Women In Illegal Migration Bill

4 min read

Labour peer Baroness Lister has said she intends to file an amendment to the Illegal Migration Bill stipulating that pregnant women arriving illegally in the UK can only be detained for a maximum of 72 hours.

The amendment would mirror a 72-hour detainment limit for pregnant women that appeared in the 2016 Immigration Act, but does not appear in the government's new Illegal Migration Bill, which seeks to toughen conditions for people who arrive in the UK illegally. 

The controversial bill, which allows the government to detain and remove anyone who arrives in the UK illegally, as well as prevent them from ever claiming asylum, passed through its third reading in the House of Commons this week. The legislation is intended to help Prime Minister Rishi Sunak deliver his pledge to "stop the boats" that are bringing large numbers of illegal migrants across the Channel, but has faced severe criticism that its rigid framework would put vulnerable people including children, pregnant women and victims of human trafficking at risk. It is expected that amendments tabled in the Lords will seek to curtail some of its toughest measures in order to protect those at risk. 

Baroness Lister told PoliticsHome that her amendment would “really [be] reinstating the status quo ante which was produced by the Conservative government itself” in 2016.

A Commons amendment to reinstate the 2016 detention limit for pregnant women made by Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North Diana Johnson earlier this week, however, failed to pass despite gaining cross party support. 

"I hope the Lords will look closely at the strength of feeling in the Commons on this issue and ensure these basic safeguarding provisions are protected," Johnson told PoliticsHome

She noted her agreement with leading medical bodies including the Royal College of Midwives, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists that government gaining powers to detain pregnant migrant women indefinitely would represent "an extremely worrying step backwards and risks vulnerable women not being able to access essential health care for themselves and for their baby".

A Home Office spokesperson dismissed concern that legislation would put pregnant women at risk, and said that "appropriate healthcare provision" would be provided to those in detention.

“We cannot allow a system to continue which incentivises people, including pregnant women, to risk their lives and pay people smugglers to come here illegally," the spokesperson said. 

“This is neither compassionate nor fair, which is why our Illegal Migration Bill will end illegal entry as a route to asylum in the UK, breaking the business model of the people smuggling gangs and restoring fairness to our asylum system. It will ensure anyone arriving via small boat or other dangerous and illegal means will be in scope for detention and swiftly removed."

Baroness Lister also echoed concerns raised in the House of Commons, notably by former prime minister and home secretary Theresa May, that the new legislation could undermine the Modern Slavery Act, and felt that she "can’t imagine many of the Crossbenchers or Bishops with an interest in this area will support” when it passes into the Lords. 

“Colleagues could not remember so many amendments being sent to the Commons as with the Nationality and Borders Bill – I suspect we will see the same with this one,” she added. 

Baroness Lister has been a vocal critic of the Illegal Migration Bill. Writing for The Sunday Mirror, she said “the Home Secretary [Suella Braverman] is unable to confirm that [the Bill] is compatible with human rights law”. In a separate piece for Comment Central she said that the Bill is “ignoring the earlier evidence of the likely harmful health effects” to pregnant women.

She told PoliticsHome that the Bill “rides a coach and horses through the United Nations Refugee Convention” and that if passed, the Bill would “harm the reputation of the United Kingdom”.

Members of the House of Lords are due to host a virtual meeting with relevant organisations to discuss the impacts of the bill on 3 May.

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