Government Accused Of "Groundhog Day" Small Boats Plan That May Not Deliver
Suella Braverman. (Alamy)
Rishi Sunak's tough new Illegal Migration Bill, designed to tackle large numbers of small boats crossing the Channel, has left some Tories wondering if the government is prioritising soundbites over substance with plans that could prove difficult to deliver.
A source who is familiar with the plans told PoliticsHome that today's announcement felt like "groundhog day," and that significant detail is still lacking in how the controversial legislation can be delivered.
“There is a lot of meat that needs to be added to the bones," they said.
The government has said that the plans announced today will allow the Home Office to deport people "swiftly" after they arrive in the UK illegally.
The plans will stop anybody who arrives in the UK illegally from claiming asylum or returning in the future, and requires Home Secretary Suella Braverman to quickly deport those who make it across the Channel. Those who arrive illegally will be detained for 28 days without bail or legal challenge, before being sent to their home country or a third country like Rwanda.
Braverman today told MPs that the message to those seeking to come to the country unlawfully was: "If you enter Britain illegally, you will be detained and swiftly removed."
Speaking in a press conference later, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak insisted the plans were "fair" and that previous attempts to curtail the activity of criminal gangs who smuggled people across the English Channel had not worked.
"My policy is very simple, it is this country — and your government — who should decide who comes here, not criminal gangs. And I will do whatever is necessary to achieve that," the PM said.
While the intention of the policy has generally been well-received by Conservative MPs, who have warned the government that the issue of small boats is one of the most important for their constituents, ministers are under pressure to explain how it will actually work in practice and how they might stand up to anticipated legal challenges.
There is particular concern that the policy will only be possible if the UK manages to broker successful bilateral returns agreements with numerous countries. As things stand, the deal with Rwanda struck last year has failed to deliver a single deportation due to legal challenges, and the African country said it has initial capacity for just 200 migrants. A returns deal with Albania has seen just a few hundred people returned.
“We have no direct bilateral agreements with European countries where migrants are travelling through," the source familiar with the plans told PoliticsHome.
A former secretary of state agreed, saying there "seems to be a piece of the jigsaw missing" when it comes to the government having the means to deport thousands of people.
As well as practical questions, Conservative MPs on the moderate wing of the party are also concerned by the prospect of the UK breaking international law, PoliticsHome understands.
Braverman acknowledges in the Illegal Migration Bill she cannot guarantee that the plans are compatible with the European Convention of Human Rights, while the United Nations Refugee Agency has today said the UK government proposals would breach international law.
“It is going to be judicial reviewed to shit by all manner of different groups," said the figure who is familiar with the plans.
Lord Alf Dubs, a Labour peer and former refugee who arrived in the UK on the Kindertransport, told PoliticsHome the plans were “absurd”, and that the best way to tackle the problem was more cooperation with France.
“I don't think this is going to work, they made the same promises before the last bill we had,” said Dubs.
“If they're going to have a meeting with president Macron, then surely they should have held off this bill until they had a meeting with president Macron — find the proper way of cooperating.
“The only way we'll deal with the people traffickers is proper, close cooperation with the French. That's what the French are asking for — and that seems to me that is the right way forward.”
Sunak will travel to Paris on Friday for a summit with Macron, where the issue of small boats is set to be high on the agenda. It will be the first UK-France summit in five years, and comes following a boost in relations between the UK and Europe with the signing of the Windsor framework for Northern Ireland.
Dubs warned the government the plan is likely to face issues when it tries to pass through the House of Lords due to question marks over the bill's legality.
"It would surely be a breach of the 1951 Geneva Convention to say the methods of travel will determine whether you are eligible to claim asylum or not... [it] is absurd."
He added: “It'll have a job getting into the Lords easily because people will say we cannot break international law, we can't breach international agreements."
Labour peer Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, who sits on the Lords Justice and Home Affairs committee, said the legislation was a distraction tactic by Prime Minister Sunak.
“Mr Sunak’s anti-refugee bill is an election strategy to distract from economic chaos, not a practical policy to avoid the need for desperate people to risk their lives in the Channel,” said Chakrabarti.
Like Dubs, she also believed the legislation is likely to face difficulties when the legislation arrives in the Lords for scrutiny.
“He wants peers to express outrage at detention without the possibility of challenge and removing refugees without even considering their claims,” said Chakrabarti.
“I’m sure we won’t disappoint his carefully confected conflict. But he underestimates British decency.
“The Dunkirk spirit is about saving people in little boats, not demonising them.”
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper described the new legislation as “chaos” and said the government is " ramping up the rhetoric on refugees".
“If the government was serious it would be working internationally to get a proper new agreement in place with France and other European countries including return agreements and properly controlled and managed legal routes such as family reunion, and reform of resettlement,” said Cooper responding to Braverman in the House of Commons this afternoon.
“Instead this bill makes it harder, unilaterally choosing to decide no asylum cases at all, but expecting every other country to carry on.”
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