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Former Home Secretary Accuses Government Of Setting "Elephant Traps" In Illegal Migration Bill

Home Secretary Suella Braverman at a press conference to launch legislation on migrant channel crossings earlier this year (Alamy)

7 min read

Former home secretary Lord David Blunkett has accused the government of setting “elephant traps” with the Illegal Migration Bill, as peers begin intense scrutiny of the Bill in the House of Lords.

Peers are beginning the debate on the Bill today and are expected to “shred” the controversial legislation. They are expected to focus amendments on four key areas including modern slavery, international law, the detention of unaccompanied children and vulnerable people, and the publication of an impact assessment. 

As it stands, the Illegal Migration Bill, which MPs have voted through the House of Commons, will curtail the rights of asylum seekers if they did not arrive in the UK via a legal route. New arrivals will be removed to a ‘third’ country and banned from ever returning or claiming citizenship.

Lord Blunkett, now a Labour peer who served as home secretary in Tony Blair's government between 2001 and 2004, told PoliticsHome he believes the government is playing a “game” in which they hope to pin the failures of the Bill on other organisations such as the Lords and courts, as well as opposition parties. 

“The government is not concerned with the legalities or practicalities,” he said.

“They’re intent on sending signals to asylum-seekers, traffickers and the public. They’re really only interested in those three things; you can see that in the way the home secretary has behaved.”

David Blunkett was home secretary under the Labour government led by Tony Blair (Alamy)
David Blunkett was home secretary under the Labour government led by Tony Blair (Alamy)

Arguing that the government has “no idea” how many places they will need for asylum-seekers or where they will place them, Blunkett said the government wants to be able to blame human rights courts, the Labour Party and the House of Lords for “getting in the way of the legislation” so they can push through the message to the public that the government has done all it can to “stop the boats”: one of the prime minister’s five pledges for 2023. 

On Wednesday, Home Secretary Suella Braverman and the new justice secretary Alex Chalk wrote an op-ed in The Times in which they urged peers to back the bill that they say is “designed to meet the will of the British people”. The ministers argue that it delivers on a key pledge made in the 2019 general election, which the Conservatives won with a large majority.

But Blunkett believes their comments are “part of the national conservatism playbook”.

“It's part of the game plan that they know that they can't possibly implement or have any effect on the general election,” he said.

“So what they want to do is to ensure that they can claim that other people, other organisations, other parts of our constitution, got in their way, and say to the electorate: ‘We tried really hard, but everyone else blocked our objectives.’”

He said this tactic has become a “worldwide phenomenon” of national conservatism inspired by recent politics in Brazil and the Trump-era US.

“It's a very dangerous game that they're playing,” he added. 

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Paddick has put forward a "motion to decline" that, if voted through, would block the Illegal Migration Bill’s passage through the Lords, meaning it would have to be reintroduced in the Commons. Liberal Democrat and Green Party politicians have criticised Labour for not supporting it. 

A Labour Lords source confirmed that Labour would not be supporting Lord Paddick's motion. 

"If successful, which they never are, the government could just Parliament Act the bill in the next Kings Speech and peers would lose the opportunity to make any amendments," they said.  

"It is therefore an irresponsible way to deal with legislation that has already gone through the elected House."

Blunkett agreed that the Lib Dems and Greens could be playing into the hands of the government. 

“I think the Lib Dems and the Greens have missed the crucial point here: this is all about elephant tracks,” he said.

“This is not about a solution to a problem. This is about exposing your opponents and trying to pretend that they are the ones who have blocked you from being able to take action.

“That’s the top and bottom of it, and if you don't get that, then you play into the hands of the government.”

He added that while he thought they were “well-intentioned”, they risked becoming scapegoats for government failure: “What we've got to do is to pin the failure on the government.”

Green Party peer Baroness Jones tweeted that she does not “quite understand the value of that” position from Labour.

Jones told PoliticsHome that the Green Party and Lib Dems will vote for the fatal motion. 

"Although Labour says it's wrong not to try to amend it, I think it's such a bad bill that it would be like putting lipstick on a pig – now I'm quite fond of pigs – but it's so bad, it's impossible to improve it," she said.

In response to Blunkett's comments that the government is setting "elephant traps", Jones said that while “we have a sneaky, slimy government", she thinks this might just be a justification for Labour to allow the Bill to continue its passage.

The former home secretary also set out a number of alternative proposals that he feels would be more effective than the government’s Bill, including reaching an agreement with France for the licensing of all small craft for purchase, sale or transportation in northern France, and a verifiable identification system for people arriving in Britain.

Blunkett also suggested that “safe countries” need to be quickly identified so people can be actually returned when their asylum claims fail, and said a “complete transformation” of the UK’s asylum claim processing system is needed. 

“If you put all those things together, you will actually have a much more dramatic impact than the political gestures and the national conservatism playbook which is currently the direction of travel,” he said. 

Labour peer Baroness Sharmishta Chakrabarti said it is too early to tell how the Bill will progress through the Lords, but told PoliticsHome she expects it will undergo "fundamental" changes. 

"I would be very surprised if the Lords try to do cosmetic surgery rather than something more fundamental to this Bill because it's just such a coach and horses through the Refugee Convention," she said. 

"It is the end of Britain's support for the Refugee Convention that it was so instrumental in negotiating.”

Those speaking in the Lords on Wednesday include former Conservative leader Lord Michael Howard, Labour politician and former child refugee Lord Alf Dubs, and a rare intevention from the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

A Lords source told PoliticsHome that former prime minister Theresa May sat at the foot of the throne in the chamber watching the debate, and shook her head as the minister Lord Murray set out the government position. 

Speaking in the chamber, the Archbishop of Canterbury strongly criticised the Bill and said there were “too many problems in this Bill for one speech”.

“We need a bill to reform migration, we need a bill to stop the boats, we need a bill to destroy the evil tribe of traffickers.

“The tragedy is that without much change, this is not that bill. 

“I urge the government to reconsider much of the bill which fails to live up to our history, our moral responsibility, and our political and international interests.”

However, the archbishop agreed with Blunkett that the Bill should not be completely thrown out, and said it should be their duty as peers to “change it”.

Baroness Susan Kramer, the daughter of a Jewish refugee, recounted her own family's story of claiming asylum in the UK, and said that the government now would send her mother to Rwanda as an "undesirable".

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