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Lords Will Target Four Key Themes In Plan To "Shred" Illegal Migration Bill

Home secretary Suella Braverman and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Alamy)

4 min read

The House of Lords is preparing to eviscerate the government's Illegal Migration Bill when it arrives in the upper chamber for its next stages of scrutiny in the coming weeks, with one Conservative peer predicting the legislation will be "torn to shreds".

A Conservative peer said the legislation would face "ferocious scrutiny" when it is put before them, telling PoliticsHome they were "really worried about the signals this sends to the rest of the world about Britain's record when it comes to protecting human rights".

The House of Lords is expected to focus its fight with ministers around four major themes when it is put before them in the weeks leading up to summer recess, including modern slavery and how the bill interacts with international law. Peers are also preparing to raise concerns about the detention of children and vulnerable people who arrive in small boats, and push for the Home Office to publish an impact assessment of the legislation, which so far has not been forthcoming.

Lords may even choose to target more areas of the Bill as they continue to unpick its detail line-by-line in the coming days. 

The Conservative peer pointed out that unlike the Tory MPs who are under intense pressure from their constituents about the issue of illegal immigration, peers do not face the same political pressure and are able to see the "bigger picture" when it comes to how best to prevent people attempting the perilous journey from France to the south coast of England. 

The Bill, which forms a key part of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's headline pledge to stop small boats crossing the English Channel, will go to the Lords next week for its second reading, where battles between peers and the government on numerous amendments are expected to become clear. Report stage, where peers will vote on amendments, is expected to take place in late June.

While the bill has so far made its way through the House of Commons without defeat, owing to the government's sizeable majority, a number of MPs – including some senior Tories – have expressed concern with some of the more hardline elements of the government's small boats plans.

The Illegal Migration Bill in its current form would enable the detention of those who arrive in small boats without bail or judicial review within the first 28 days of being held, until they can be removed. New arrivals who reach the UK illegally will be removed to a ‘third’ country, with some being sent to Rwanda, and then banned from ever returning or claiming citizenship in the UK. The Home Office recently announced it would put up to 500 male asylum seekers on a barge off the coast of Dorset, and is currently looking at other ways it can house detainees.

The plans have also raised practical questions, like how the government plans to deport people who arrive illegally without more returns agreements with other countries in place, whether the UK has enough space in its detention facilities to meet demand, and what will happen to those migrants who are released on bail after 28 days in detention.

“The range of peers who’ve signed up for second reading is an indication of the wide concern that exists with this legislation, and the tough scrutiny and challenges it will face in the months ahead," a Labour source in the upper chamber told PoliticsHome.

"There is, of course, an opportunity – as ever when a Bill is in the Lords – for ministers to listen to the warnings and advice, especially in relation to modern slavery, child safeguarding, safe and legal routes of passage, and crime enforcement against the gangs."

Former prime minister Theresa May, the architect of modern slavery legislation during her time in the Home Office, has warned that in its current form it will exacerbate modern slavery. Former attorney general Geoffrey Cox has expressed alarm that it will "sanction... at least the possibility" the deliberate disobeying of the UK's international legal obligations.

Labour is particularly hopeful there will be sufficient cross-party support to defeat the government on the issue of modern slavery when amendments are put to votes, while there is expected to be significant support for an amendment tabled by Baroness Lister stipulating that pregnant women who arrive in the UK can only be detained for a maximum of 72 hours.

The Labour peer recently told PoliticsHome she was “reinstating the status quo” by replicating a 72-hour detention limit incorporated into the 2016 Immigration Act. A Commons amendment tabled by Labour MP Diana Johnson that would have added the 2016 provision was defeated by MPs, but stands a good chance of being backed cross-party in the House of Lords.

Sunak has made stopping small boats one of his top priorities, along with cutting NHS waiting times, halving inflation, bringing down debt and growing the economy, and is under pressure from Conservative MPs to tackle the issue before the next general election.

He recently refused to commit to delivering his small boats pledge before the next general election, saying while doing so was "important" to him it could not "happen overnight".


Additional reporting by Zoe Crowther.

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