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Tory Rebels Mobilise Against Asylum “Offshoring” And Workers' Rights As Priti Patel Battles To Pass Borders Bill

Priti Patel will face a battle to keep control of her flagship legislation when it returns to the Commons tomorrow (Alamy)

4 min read

A group of Tory MPs are primed to rebel in a vote tomorrow and force the government to abandon plans to process asylum seekers potentially thousands of miles from the UK.

It is one of a number of amendments to the Nationality and Borders Bill where Priti Patel is expected to face serious pressure when it returns to the Commons, after the Home Secretary suffered 20 defeats in the House of Lords.

Dozens of Conservatives, including former Cabinet ministers, have also signed a letter urging that the amount of time asylum seekers have to wait before they can work in the UK should be cut in half.

They hope to force Patel to reduce the waiting period from 12 months to six, but she does not, the group of MPs say they are willing to vote to uphold an amendment passed by peers which would do so.

Even if the rebels do not manage to drum up support of more than 40 MPs needed to defeat the government, organisers of the letter say if they get close to succeeding, the House of Lords will likely be emboldened to amend the bill once more, forcing it back to the Commons. This is known as as legislative “ping pong”,  a process that slows down a bill's progress.

Peers attempted to strip out key parts of the controversial legislation, including plans to deprive people of British citizenship and bringing in offshore detention, during its initial passage through the upper chamber.

Patel has repeatedly signalled she wants to go ahead with such a system for processing people, recruiting the former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer, who has employed a similar policy, to review the country’s border force last month.

But despite briefing that a number of different countries could be used to host processing centres, including Ascension Island, Albania, Gibraltar, the Isle of Man and Ghana, no viable destination has been found.

One of those in support of several of the Lords amendments, particularly the removal of offshore processing, is ex-international development secretary Andrew Mitchell, who said the policy is "almost certainly impossible to implement”.

“I hope they'll come to the conclusion it's not a sensible way to address the problem they are rightly seeking to solve," Mitchell told PoliticsHome.

“It would be better to employ several hundred more people to process the claims and to fix an appeal process that is too often exploited by over-enterprising lawyers.”

Mitchell said overall “what the bill is aiming to do is very sensible”, but called on Patel to “reflect further” in a number of areas.

The government has rejected the idea of allowing asylum seekers quicker access to employment, saying it would create a “pull factor” in attracting more people to come to the UK.

But Mitchell disagreed “I don't think that the pull factor would be significantly affected by reducing the period from 12 to 6 months," he continued. 

“Indeed, it would save the taxpayer money and quite possibly assist the labour market.”

Another Tory MP said it was “proper Conservative values” to allow people to work, and also cited polling which shows the public is in favour of such a move.

A former minister also rejected the idea of a “pull factor”, saying if the current policy was a deterrent, it was a very bad one considering the number of people arriving in the UK in recent months.

They told PoliticsHome that given the new sponsorship scheme for Ukrainian refugees allows people to work as soon as they arrive in the UK, the borders bill risks being out of step.

“We’re spending a billion pounds a year on putting asylum seekers up in hotels, and they can’t do anything,” they said.

“Their mental health suffers, and then they have to use NHS resources, they should be allowed to work.”

The former minister said they were unsure if there were enough MPs to to defeat the government, but said the the group of backbenchers who signed the letter are “enough of a block to cause the Whips office a headache”, saying the government will be “anxious”, and “brows will be furrowed”, and calling on them to work with them rather than face a series of difficult votes.

Other Lords amendments to be debated tomorrow include provision for Chagos Islanders to acquire British nationality, forcing the government to legally comply with the Refugee Convention, and prohibiting the use of new maritime powers contained in ways that could endanger life at sea.

The Home Office has been contacted for comment. 

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