MPs reject bid to stop ‘pushback’ of migrant boats from endangering lives

Attempt to rein in punitive approach of Priti Patel’s crackdown fails in Commons votes

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Tuesday 07 December 2021 23:20
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<p>Harriet Harman </p>

Harriet Harman

MPs have voted down a bid by parliament’s human rights committee to make it illegal for immigration officers to attempt to “push back” migrant boats in the English Channel in a way which would endanger lives.

The pushback proposal, which would involve Border Force boats physically turning back dinghies heading from France to the UK, is one of a set of hardline measures in Priti Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill designed to make it tougher for asylum seekers to make their claims in Britain.

Efforts by MPs to tone down the bill failed on Tuesday evening, and it is now set to complete its passage through the House of Commons on Wednesday.

An amendment banning the use of maritime enforcement powers “in a manner that would endanger lives at sea”, tabled by the chair of the human rights committee Harriet Harman, was defeated by a margin of 235 votes to 313.

Only two Tory MPs – Simon Hoare and Caroline Nokes – broke ranks to back the change.

And MPs rejected by 233-318 a second amendment which would have stopped Ms Patel from prosecuting and jailing for up to four years asylum seekers who arrive in the UK by illicit means.

Other amendments were not put to a vote, including calls for safe routes for asylum seekers to reach the UK, to create a new “humanitarian visa” allowing them to enter Britain from France for the purpose of having their claims processed and to prevent the government from sending them to camps in foreign countries until a decision is made on whether they can stay.

After clearing the Commons on Wednesday, the controversial bill – which also includes new powers to strip individuals of their British nationality without informing them – faces further challenge in the House of Lords.

Urging the government to back down on pushback proposals and rule out their use against “unseaworthy vessels such as dinghies”, Ms Harman said Ms Patel should not “give new powers to the Border Force which then cost lives at sea”.

She said that making it clear in the bill that immigration officers will not be allowed to put lives at risk would ensure that operations are safe and that British authorities do not breach international law.

Meanwhile, Conservative former minister David Davis said that plans to “offshore” asylum claimants in other countries would be “eye-waveringly expensive” – increasing the annual bill from around £1.4bn to as much as £35bn.

A similar scheme in Australia has been “seriously problematic on a humanitarian level”, he said, citing reports of “gut-wrenching sexual, physical and mental abuse that has pushed vulnerable children towards suicide”.

In one case, he said “a 14-year-old girl held offshore for five years doused herself in petrol and tried to set herself alight”, adding “if this where to happen on our watch just imagine how the public would respond to harm, serious harm to a child nominally in our care”.

Mr Davis was among 15 Conservative MPs who rebelled to support a proposal to scrap visa fees for foreign-born UK military veterans who want to remain in the country.

Former defence minister Johnny Mercer said the change was backed by the Duke of Sussex.

Prince Harry had said in a private conversation on Monday that it would be “morally right” to waive the charge for military veterans, the former army officer told the Commons.

“He has contributed hugely to the veterans debate and I wanted his view,” said Mr Mercer.

“He said to me it’s not only morally right but would mean so much to those who have given so much… They’re our brothers and sisters, they’ve served with us over many, many years.”

However, the rebellion was not enough to force the change through, as Mr Mercer’s amendment was defeated by 251-296.

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