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Tory MPs Warned New Bill Of Rights Won't Work To Tackle Illegal Channel Crossings


7 min read

Tory MPs have been accused of pushing a “political narrative” with their claims that reforming the Human Rights Act (HRA) will help tackle illegal immigration.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) suggested some MPs have wrongly conflated migrants crossing the Channel, failed asylum seekers and foreign criminals while calling for a new British Bill of Rights.

In last month's Queen’s Speech, the government set out details of the long-awaited plans to replace the HRA with a new all-British Bill of Rights.

Its promise that the Bill would “end the abuse of the human rights framework” was welcome news to some Tory MPs, many of whom have bemoaned efforts by lawyers who they believe have used HRA legislation to frustrate the immigration process.

There has been growing concern within the Tory party about the rise in people crossing the Channel after 28,526 people made the journey in 2021, a significant spike from the 8,410 who arrived in 2020.

But PoliticsHome understands the Ministry of Justice doesn’t expect the new Bill to deal with the ongoing issue of migrants illegally crossing the Channel in small boats, and the associated exploitation by human traffickers, despite claims to the contrary. 

Justice Secretary Dominic Raab has claimed that the Bill of Rights will help with the deportation of Foreign National Offenders (FNOs) by ending “expansive interpretations” of the HRA.

Refugee charities, however, argue that the instances of this happening are vanishingly rare, and that reforming the HRA risks undermining human rights more broadly.

Boris Johnson’s government first promised to “update” the HRA — which enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights (EHRC) into domestic law — in its 2019 General Election manifesto, and shortly after set up an independent review to establish what change was actually needed.

But, despite the review advising against any radical reform, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab announced in December 2021 that he planned to “overhaul” the HRA and replace it with a new Bill of Rights.

It was something that members of the Common Sense Group (CSG) of Tory MPs had consistently advocated for. 

Three months earlier, 60 of its members had written to Raab complaining that the HRA was allowing “activist lawyers” to prevent deportations, and limiting the government's ability to control immigration levels.

“The Human Rights Act has had a frustrating effect well beyond its supposed merits, with subsequent Prime Ministers and Home Secretaries having their efforts to tackle illegal immigration stymied by this obstructive, outdated legislation,” the CSG’s chair Sir John Hayes MP said in the letter to Raab.Many of the group’s members have also taken up these issues in the Commons chamber.

“Let us scrap the Human Rights Act in this country, so that foreign criminals who are taking advantage of the current system, and economic migrants who are crossing the English channel and entering this country illegally, can be deported very much more quickly than they are now,” Jonathan Gullis, Tory MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, told the Commons in September 2021.

Blackpool South MP Scott Benton suggested that the HRA, alongside the government’s Nationality and Borders Act, would help prevent the “tragic loss of life in the Channel”.

“I fear that we will not be able to gain back full control of our immigration and asylum policy unless we scrap the Human Rights Act,” he said, speaking in November 2021.

One 2019-intake Tory MP told PoliticsHome that they believed the new Bill of Rights “would certainly help” reduce the numbers of people illegally crossing the Channel in small boats.

But it's understood that the Bill of Rights will not contain anything allowing the government to turn back small boats, as protections against the controversial move are enshrined in international law.

Zoe Gardner, policy and advocacy manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), agreed that it was unlikely that the Bill of Rights “will have any impact on people crossing the Channel”.

The provisions set out in the HRA are “not really aimed at people” arriving and seeking asylum in the UK, she explained.Proposed changes in the new Act are focused more on “removing certain defences” for deportation claims, which generally apply to people who have been resident in the UK for some time.

Gardner is sceptical, however, that these changes will have any deterrent effect on people attempting to cross the Channel to reach the UK.

“MPs may be seeing it as, generally speaking, being more harsh and more cruel towards migrants may contribute to what they consider to be a deterrent mechanism that would stop people deciding to make those journeys, but there's no evidence to support that approach,” she said.

Last week the Home Office confirmed that its first deportation flight to Rwanda would take off and that it had started issuing removal notices to people who have arrived in the UK without authorisation. Under the controversial scheme, those who have arrived in the UK illegally will be forcibly sent to the African nation and encouraged to settle there. The government has argued this will act as a deterrant to people considering making an illegal Channel crossing.

Gardner accused MPs of having “narratively bundled” together asylum seekers and economic migrants to make a “political” point about the HRA.

“Deportations, crucially, do not apply to asylum seekers. [It’s] very confusing and irritating wording here,” she explained.

“Asylum seekers, if they are refused, they're then removed, whereas a migrant who, for example, has committed a crime and served their sentence will face deportation.”

“They are different groups. I think there's a mixing of that just for political narrative building.”

Though the full text of the Bill has not been published, questions in the government’s consultation on the HRA have indicated that the government plans to further remove barriers to deportation.

Setting out his plans for the Act in the Times last year, Raab said it will “curb abuses of our human rights laws” by foreign criminals seeking to stay in the UK, as well as help the Home Office reduce illegal Channel crossings.

But Gardner insisted that preventing the deportation of a foreign criminal was already “incredibly difficult” under existing UK law, and was usually only allowed “under exceptional circumstances”.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) also dismissed suggestions in a report last month that the HRA was needed to prevent lawyers bringing unnecessary appeals against deportation.

It claimed that the evidence for the changes was “weak” since courts were already able to throw out frivolous claims, and that bringing in such reforms risked “interfering with the courts' discretion”.

“The Government is purporting to solve non-existent problems and offering solutions that would only cause confusion and detriment to those who need their rights protected,” the committee’s chair Harriet Harman said.

The Refugee Council shares concerns that there isn’t a clear justification for scrapping the HRA, and argues that the government’s focus on deterrents rather than creating safe routes was putting people’s lives at risk.

“Without safe routes, people fleeing war and persecution have no alternative but to put themselves in the hands of people smugglers and make life-threatening journeys across the Channel to find safety, which is already getting worse with the arrival of the warm weather,” Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said, responding to the Queen’s Speech last month.

“We, like so many, are deeply concerned about the justification to repeal the Human Rights Act, which threatens to weaken the rights of many of the most vulnerable in society, including men, women and children who are simply trying to find safety in this country due to war, bloodshed and persecution raging in their countries.”

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