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Tory MPs Fire Warning Shot Over Illegal Migration Bill

Theresa May spearheaded a rebellion on modern slavery in the Illegal Migration Bill (Alamy)

4 min read

The government faces further battles with Tory MPs on the Illegal Migration Bill after a significant number of Conservative backbenchers supported moves to strengthen modern slavery protections in a marathon Commons vote on Tuesday night.

While the House of Commons overall voted to reject 18 amendments added to the bill by the House of Lords, on an amendment seeking to beef up protections for migrants who arrive in the UK through illegal exploitation the government won with a majority of just 42.

A total of 285 MPs voted to reject the amendment, which is spearheaded by former prime minister Theresa May, while 243 voted to support it. The Bill will now return to the Lords who will likely be galvanised by the government's slim majority on this issue. 

The legislation, which is at the heart of Rishi Sunak's pledge to stop illegal Channel crossings, has proven to be hugely contentious and the House of Lords are likely to amend it heavily once again when it returns to the upper chamber, setting up parliamentary "ping pong".

The government had offered some concessions to its original proposals, including scrapping its plan to retrospectively apply the new law, and on the time limit for which it can detain people arriving illegally, in an attempt to satisfy concerned Conservative MPs.

But for a number of Tory backbenchers, the proposed changes didn't go far enough.

Just hours before the Bill returns to the Commons on Tuesday, a number of senior Conservatives, including former Cabinet minister Damian Green and Tim Loughton, were in discussions with ministers about the modern slavery element of the legislation – on which the government has refused to back down. 

Other high-profile Tories, including former prime minister May and ex-party leader Iain Duncan Smith, have led calls from the Conservative backbenchers for victims of modern slavery to grant exemptions from the provisions contained within the bill. The slim margin of defeat on tonight's vote suggests Sunak has a fight on his hand when the legislation returns to the Commons, which is expected to take place next week.

May told the Commons that the government plans in their current form would "consign more people to slavery". 

"This bill is not just written to stop the boats, it covers all illegal migration and its unwritten subtext is the stop certain victims’ claims of modern slavery bill,” she said.

“Not stop false claims of modern slavery, but stop all claims full stop and that is where I depart from the government.”

During the debate, which was followed by four hours of voting on amendments, Conservative MPs also raised concerns about the government's plans for detention, as well as the lack of safe routes allowing migrants to arrive legally in the UK.

Home Office minister Robert Jenrick said it was "vital" that parliament passes the bill as soon as possible, and accused peers of "wrecking" the government's plans to tackle Channel crossings.

Tory MPs in the moderate wing of the parliamentary party are concerned by the current state of the legislation, which Sunak wants to speed through to the statute book before parliament's summer recess begins next week. While they have already successfully persuaded the PM and Home Secretary Suella Braverman to offer certain concessions, these are not expected to satisfy peers when the Bill is passed back to the Lords. 

An amendment relating to the detention of unaccompanied children who arrive via small boats, which will be limited to eight days, while the detention of pregnant women will be limited to 72 hours, could prove a particular sticking point with peers who want government to go further.

Sunak, who on Tuesday was in Lithuania for a NATO summit, faces a tricky juggling act in addressing the concerns of Tory moderates, who argue that elements of the Illegal Migration Bill are too extreme, while also assuring MPs on the right of the Conservative party that he is still taking tough action to curb small boats crossings - which is one of his five major promises to voters.

One particularly critical MP in the latter group told PoliticsHome that the concessions "show weakness of the PM and further raise questions over how deliverable his priorities are".

On Friday, the Home Office recorded the highest number of crossings in a single day this year, with 686 people arriving via small boats. The numbers are expected to remain high in the coming weeks, as people are more likely to attempt the journey in summer weather.

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