Small boats bill suffers defeats as Lords vote to stop trafficking victims being deported to Rwanda

Conservative peers among those attacking Illegal Migration Bill, which Rishi Sunak claims will ‘stop the boats’

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Wednesday 28 June 2023 19:06 BST
Rishi Sunak says he 'will not rest' until small boats are stopped

Key parts of Rishi Sunak’s small boats bill have been shredded by the House of Lords as peers inflicted a series of defeats against the government.

Conservatives were among those attacking plans to deport trafficking victims to Rwanda and other countries, as well as moving to force the Illegal Migration Bill to comply with international law and narrow its scope.

Peers supported an amendment removing potential victims of modern slavery and trafficking from a new “legal duty” to detain and deport small boat migrants, in spite of protection claims or ongoing police investigations.

It was passed by 210 votes to 145 after a government minister claimed the change would “profoundly undermine” efforts to deter Channel crossings and “wreck the bill”.

Supporting the amendment, Labour peer Lord Hunt quoted former prime minister Theresa May’s warning that the bill would see genuine victims denied support.

“I am seeking to preserve the integrity of the Modern Slavery Act,” he told the House of Lords.

“Instead of dealing with the perpetrators of this awful crime it is the victims who are going to be penalised.”

Conservative peer Lord Cormack said the bill would “undermine an international achievement [the 2015 Modern Slavery Act] of far-reaching importance”.

Another defeat saw peers back an amendment stating that actions under the Illegal Migration Bill cannot conflict with the UK’s obligations under the UN Refugee Convention, European Convention on Human Rights and other agreements on child protection, trafficking and statelessness.

The new laws are key to the prime minister’s plan to “stop the boats” and aim to allow the government to detain and deport all small boat migrants, without considering their asylum or trafficking claims.

When the bill was introduced to parliament, home secretary Suella Braverman made an unusual statutory declaration that it may not be compatible with the Human Rights Act, but she said elsewhere that it was compatible with international law.

Theresa May says small boats bill 'shuts door' to genuine victims

A government minister told the House of Lords that the amendment stating the measures cannot conflict with international law was “not necessary” and would “wreck” the bill, but it was passed by 222 votes to 179.

The government was defeated again when peers voted by 219 to 177 to take out retrospective powers making the bill apply to any small boat migrants who arrived after 7 March.

The amendments will now be sent back to the House of Commons, and further defeats were expected as peers considered dozens of changes late into Wednesday evening.

An impact assessment published on Monday said the Illegal Migration Bill will cost an estimated £169,000 to deport each asylum seeker, but that it was unclear how many would be removed or if the move would deter enough Channel crossings to be value for public money.

The only existing deal is with Rwanda, and flights remain suspended as the government awaits a Court of Appeal ruling on Thursday.

Labour peer Baroness Chakrabarti told the House of Lords that enforcing the UK’s compliance with international law was “is important for international rules-based order and for our reputation as a great democracy in a troubled world”.

Several Conservative and crossbench peers spoke in support of the amendment, with Tory Baroness Helic saying the current bill would “undermine the rule of law”.

“Conservative governments were instrumental in creating these international agreements,” she added. “Simply ignoring them in the pursuit of domestic expediency puts us in very bad company.”

Rishi Sunak has vowed to ‘stop the boats’ but a Home Office impact assessment found there was no proof the measures would work

Fellow Conservative Lord Cormack asked how the UK would oppose China’s violation of agreements relating to Hong Kong, or other international disputes if “we pass laws in this place which violate international law”.

“To violate international law is to invalidate international law and I think we should bear that in mind,” he added.

Labour peer Lord Coaker said it was “unbelievable” that the amendment even had to be passed, saying that the UK should not be “trashing international conventions we have signed”.

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford said there was a “moral imperative” to take international commitments seriously and warned against “unfortunate rhetoric and misinformation around the bill”.

Government minister Lord Murray told peers: “The government takes its international obligations very seriously and there is nothing in this bill that requires any act or omission that conflicts with them.”

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has said the bill breaches the Refugee Convention, while a parliamentary report released earlier this month found the provisions also violate the European Convention on Human Rights, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and Council of Europe Convention Against Trafficking.

Crossbench peer Lord Carlile said the government’s attempt to make the bill apply retrospectively to all small boat migrants who arrived after 7 March was unacceptable, and called claims the move would deter Channel crossings a “nasty fairytale”.

“The government is not offering evidence, it is offering a refrain of ‘stop the boats’,” he added.

“This is wholly unacceptable given the fact that the proposals represent a widespread retroactive overhaul of our asylum law, founded simply on a ‘deterrent effect’ which is unproved.

“It sets a dangerous precedent that government could legislate retrospectively based on no more than conjecture and anecdote.”

Lord Carlile said last year’s Nationality and Borders Act, backed by former home secretary Priti Patel, had the same intention of stopping small boat crossings but had not worked.

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