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Small boats bill ripped apart in Lords as peers say government living ‘in cloud cuckoo land’

Peer says aim of detaining and deporting small boat migrants ‘not based on reality’ as Lords add protections for pregnant women, children and LGBT+ people

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Monday 03 July 2023 22:28 BST
Rishi Sunak says he 'will not rest' until small boats are stopped

The government’s plans to tackle the small boats crisis has been dealt a damaging blow in the House of Lords with peers demanding 11 key changes.

Several defeats were inflicted by peers on Monday, with members backing amendments limiting the detention of children and pregnant women, inserting protections for LGBT+ asylum seekers and forcing asylum claims to be considered for anyone not deported within six months.

Other revisions would include protections to modern slavery victims and strip out curbs on legal challenges to deportation.

It comes as peers accused the government of living in “cloud cuckoo land” as it continues to press ahead with its bill to deport asylum seekers who arrive in the county illegally despite having nowhere to send them.

Several members of the House of Lords called for the Illegal Migration Bill, which aims to detain and deport all small boat migrants, to be withdrawn in light of last week’s Court of Appeal ruling that the Rwanda deal is unlawful.

A minister previously told peers that Rwanda was the only nation where the UK has “an agreement with that country to take them back”, although the government hoped to make similar deals with other nations.

But it is continuing to back laws that aim to allow the Home Office to detain and deport all small boat migrants without considering asylum or modern slavery claims.

The law, which is key to Rishi Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats”, states that they will be detained for a minimum of 28 days, or longer if the home secretary believes it “is reasonably necessary”.

Crossbench peer Lord Carlile successfully pushed for a change removing detention powers from the home secretary and handing them back to the courts.

He said the government had “left the world of reality and the law and taken a trip into cloud cuckoo land”. “We keep hearing from ministers something that is not based on reality, they seem to have forgotten that they lost the case in the Court of Appeal last week,” Lord Carlile added.

“The fact is that we in this house above all are entitled to expect the government to obey the law. They cannot send anyone to Rwanda, it’s unlawful.”

Lord Carlile, a former senior barrister, said the government’s appeal to the Supreme Court would not be heard until October at the earliest – after the Illegal Migration Bill is due to have passed through parliament.

“We are not in a realistic situation,” he added, calling for the government to withdraw the bill and “start again” if it eventually wins the legal battle.

Several peers pointed to figures showing that last month saw the highest number of small boat crossings for any June on record, questioning the government’s claim that its plans are a “deterrent”. The total for the first half of 2023 is still 10 per cent lower than this time last year.

UK government's Rwanda asylum plan is unlawful, says Court of Appeal

Lord Green, who was a founder of right-wing campaign group Migration Watch UK, said: “It appears that what the government has done so far has had no or very little effect.”

Conservative peer Viscount Hailsham said that even if the Rwanda plan is implemented, “it will not be possible to deport migrants in sufficient numbers as to constitute an effective deterrent”.

He accused the government of widening immigration detention powers originally drawn up for people being imminently deported to be “an administrative convenience in the hope that some prospect of deportation will turn up”.

“This is a huge enlargement in the discretionary powers of the secretary of state and I don’t want to give any secretary of state, least of all the present home secretary or her predecessor, such additional powers,” he added.

Liberal Democrat peer Lord German said there were “no viable agreements in place” to deport asylum seekers, and accused ministers of planning to lock them up “purely with the aim of deterring others”.

He put forward a successful amendment that would force the government to consider asylum applications from small boat migrants who are not deported for six months after being deemed “inadmissible” in the UK.

Another amendment would restrict the deportations of LGBT+ asylum seekers to countries where they may be persecuted, while peers also strongly backed limits on the detention of children and pregnant women.

The Illegal Migration Bill is part of the UK Government’s efforts to deter people from crossing the Channel in small boats (PA)

Labour peer Baroness Lister said parliament had been given only the “flimsiest of justifications” for the unprecedented powers, which contradict previous Conservative policy.

The Lord Bishop of Durham told peers it was a “damning indictment” that amendments on child protection were required when they only proposed the most “basic safeguards”.

Government minister Lord Murray said the bill’s detention powers were necessary to effect deportations and that the plans would “operate quickly and fairly”, but did not directly address practical questions.

He claimed that detaining children and pregnant women would “send a clear message … that they cannot be exploited by people-smuggling gangs on the false promise of starting a new life in the UK”.

Lord Murray said it was right to give the home secretary powers over detention times because the Home Office would be “in possession of all relevant facts”.

“It is the government’s intention to remove any illegal entrants to a safe third country,” he added, saying the Court of Appeal had found the aim “lawful as a matter of principle”.

The amendments, alongside others backed by the House of Lords, will be sent back to the House of Commons for MPs’ consideration.

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