Small boats crisis latest: Labour MPs will be instructed to vote against Illegal Migration Bill

The Conservatives have announced a controversial new bill, aimed at taking back control of the UK's borders.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman have unveiled a controversial new bill aimed at stopping illegal migrants across the channel (Image: Kim Mogg / NationalWorld / Getty)Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman have unveiled a controversial new bill aimed at stopping illegal migrants across the channel (Image: Kim Mogg / NationalWorld / Getty)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman have unveiled a controversial new bill aimed at stopping illegal migrants across the channel (Image: Kim Mogg / NationalWorld / Getty)

The finer details of the Conservative's proposed new Illegal Migration Bill remain a little foggy, with the Prime Minister refusing to be drawn on questions about when he would stop small boat crossings, and whether trafficking victims who arrived via illegal means would be protected.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak formally unveiled their plans on Tuesday to remove and ban asylum seekers from re-entry if they arrive in the UK through illegal means. The Prime Minister had made a promise to the British people, that anyone entering the country illegally would be detained and "swiftly removed", and this Bill would fulfil that promise, Braverman said.

At the Prime Minister's question time on Wednesday, Sunak butted heads with opposition MPs, as he was grilled on the Government's track record on illegal immigration and on sending people found ineligible for asylum back.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer slammed the plans as nothing new, and said they have been tried before - and failed. “I voted against his legislation last time because I said it wouldn’t work, since it became law the numbers have gone up, he’s proved me right. The Prime Minister says they will detain people who aren’t eligible to claim asylum here and then return them. Well, they already tried that under the last legislation.”

Starmer said in 2022, 18,000 people were deemed ineligible to apply for asylum. Only 21 had actually been sent back, he claimed. “What happens to the rest? They sit in hotels and digs for months on end at the taxpayers’ expense.”

The Prime Minister answered: “We’ve actually got a clear plan to stop people coming here in the first place. Labour have absolutely no plan on this issue because they simply don’t want to tackle the problem.

“We introduced tougher sentences for people smugglers, they opposed it, we signed a deal with Rwanda, they opposed it, we are deporting foreign offenders as we speak, they oppose it… In fact, he opposed every single step of what we’ve done to try and stop this problem.”

How has the Bill been received?

The Equality and Human Rights Commission said: “We welcome the government’s intention to remain within the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). We are nonetheless concerned that the legislation risks breaching the UK’s legal obligations under the Refugee Convention and ECHR.”

The plan is simply “not the British way of doing things”, the Refugee Council said. Its chief executive Enver Solomon suggested the plans were “more akin to authoritarian nations” such as Russia and insisted the proposals would not stop desperate people crossing in small boats but would instead leave “traumatised people locked up in a state of misery being treated as criminals and suspected terrorists without a fair hearing on our soil”.

He said the new legislation “ignores the fundamental point that most of the people in small boats are men, women and children escaping terror and bloodshed from countries including Afghanistan, Iran and Syria”.

Labour and SNP ministers questioned the Tory’s hard-line approach and the sturdiness of the bill, as well as what would happen to migrants who could not be returned. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the government did not have the necessary agreements in place to actually send asylum seekers back.

"They still don’t have any return agreements in place, the Home Secretary herself has admitted Rwanda is failing, and even if it gets going it’ll only take a few hundred people, so what will happen to the other 99% of people under this Bill?”

While fellow Conservatives seemed mostly onboard with the plan, many questioned what it would mean for Britain's membership in the European Convention on Human Rights, which had previously grounded attempts to send illegal migrants to Rwanda. Sunak said while they believed they were in line with international law, they were “up for the fight” if need be.

The new Bill has been criticised by human rights watchdogs like Amnesty International, the Church of Scotland, and even the United Nations. UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, said it was “profoundly concerned”, as the legislation would extinguish the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly, "no matter how genuine and compelling their claim may be".

“Most people fleeing war and persecution are simply unable to access the required passports and visas…This would be a clear breach of the Refugee Convention and would undermine a longstanding humanitarian tradition of which the British people are rightly proud.”

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Labour questions hardline approach

Cooper also questioned the bill’s hardline approach, and asked what would happen to people detained after those 28 days were up. If their cases were not resolved, would they be put out on the street, separated from family, she asked.

“What does it mean for the promises that we made to the Afghan interpreters who served our country, but were too late to make the last flight out of Kabul as the tyranny was closing in on them? The Government told them to flee, and find another way here.”

If they were to arrive under the new legislation, “they would only ever be illegal in the eyes of the Government who relied on the sacrifices they made for us", she said.

Home Secretary's direct message to migrants: 'do not get into that flimsy dinghy'.

Conservative former minister Tim Loughton criticised the “fabricated rage” from Labour, and said the Home Affairs Select Committee had been informed the Rwanda policy had initially had a deterrent effect on migrants getting into boats, when it was announced during a recent visit to France.

Suella Braverman replied: “Deterrence is the key theme running through these measures. We want to send the message loudly and clearly to those people smugglers, to those people thinking about crossing the channel: Do not do it.

“Do not hand over your life savings, do not get into that flimsy dinghy, do not risk your life, because you will not be entitled to a life in the UK.”

What would happen to migrants who could not be returned?

The Home Secretary would not be drawn into questions from the SNP about what would happen to a migrant who could not be returned to another country.

SNP immigration spokesman Stuart C McDonald claimed the Bill “will not so much as lay a solitary finger on people smugglers or people traffickers, but it will cause serious and devastating harm for people who have already endured incredible suffering”.

Suella Braverman replied that the SNP spokesman expressed a lot of “passion” in his questions, adding: “I would only wish that the Scottish Government would bring so much passion to their approach to accommodating asylum seekers when Scotland currently takes one of the lowest numbers of asylum seekers out of our United Kingdom.”

Debate over why asylum system really overwhelmed

The Home Affairs Select Committee found that small boats have not “overwhelmed” the asylum system as the Home Secretary claimed, its Labour chairwoman Dame Diana Johnson said.

In its report on Channel crossings published last summer, “we found that small boats have not overwhelmed the asylum system as the Home Secretary is claiming today”, she said. “The backlog has been allowed to grow since 2013… poor resourcing by successive governments of staff and technology in the asylum operations function of the Home Office has been a significant factor in its collapse.”

Braverman hit back, saying it was "clear for everyone to see that our asylum system has been overwhelmed by unprecedented numbers of people arriving here, and very high numbers being processed currently.”

Braverman questions Labour's plans to tackle illegal migration

Braverman questioned whether Labour and party leady Sir Keir Starmer had any plans for fixing the problem at all, and why even before seeing it and engaging on the substance, Labour had already said it wouldn’t support its passage through Parliament.

“Deep down, the Leader of the Opposition doesn’t want to stop the boats. He thinks it’s bigoted to say that we’ve got too much illegal migration abusing our system… Labour are against deterring people who would come here illegally. They are against detaining people who do come here illegally. And they are against deporting people who are here illegally.

“That means they are for this situation getting worse and worse. Perhaps that’s fine for the Leader of the Opposition and most of the Labour frontbench, but it’s not their schools, it’s not their GPs, it’s not their public services, housing and hotels filling up with illegal migrants.”

Will the UK leave the European Court of Human Rights ?

Conservative former levelling up secretary Simon Clarke told the Commons that immigration was a “top priority” for his constituents.“That being the case, we all hope this legislation will succeed, but will she promise that if it is frustrated by the European Convention on Human Rights that we will commit to leave it? Because leave it we must, if in the end this legislation is forestalled.”

The sentiment was echoed by former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who said: “Could my right honourable friend expand a little bit on the issue that stopped the migrants being taken to Rwanda last time, which was the intervention of the Court of Human Rights… I didn’t really hear anything in this statement to suggest that anything has changed on that matter.”

Suella Braverman said last year’s ruling by the European Court of Human Rights which grounded a flight to Rwanda was “deeply regrettable”.

“We are addressing that particular issue in this Bill to avoid that scenario playing out again. But in our view this Bill complies with our international obligations and we must take these measures now promptly.”

Humanitarian groups, churches speak out against bill

Amnesty International says there is nothing “fair, humane or even practical” in the Government’s planned new law to tackle Channel crossings.

Steve Valdez-Symonds, the group’s refugee and migrant rights director, said: “Attempting to disqualify people’s asylum claims en masse regardless of the strength of their case is a shocking new low for the Government… People fleeing persecution and conflict will be irreparably harmed by these proposals, while the UK is setting an utterly terrible example to other countries around the world.”

He accused the Government of “callously using vulnerable people for its own political ends”, and said Ministers needed to focus on the real issue – the urgent need to fairly and efficiently decide asylum claims while urgently introducing accessible schemes, “so people seeking asylum do not have to rely on people smugglers and dangerous journeys.”

Meanwhile the Church of Scotland urged the UK Government to drop the new bill, saying it “goes against everything that we uphold and value”. The church joined the Scottish Refugee Council in condemning the Illegal Migration Bill, who said it would leave people fleeing violent regimes with no way to claim asylum.

Rev Karen Hendry, convener of the Church of Scotland’s faith impact forum, said: “I am deeply concerned by the growing hostility towards people seeking safety both in the way they are viewed and as displayed today, in policy by the UK Government.

“This Bill will not just strip people fleeing war and persecution of their right to seek safety in the UK but punish them, based simply on how they came here, not whether they need protection from war and persecution.”

If you're just joining us

- House Secretary Suella Braverman has today formally unveiled a proposed new law in the House of Commons, aimed at curbing illegal migration

- Braverman says 85,000 people had illegally entered the UK by small boat since 2018, 45,000 of them just last year 

- The bill would remove and ban asylum seekers from re-entry if they arrive in the UK through illegal means

- Labour and SNP have questioned the Tory’s hardline approach, and what would happen to migrants who could not be returned

- Meanwhile, Conservative MPs have questioned whether the UK would need to leave the European Convention on Human Rights to achieve the bill

- Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will hold a press conference on the bill later today

Prime Minister to speak

Rishi Sunak's Downing St press conference is due to begin shortly, where he will answer questions about the new government bill aimed at putting a stop to illegal migration over the Channel.

Reporters at the scene say a new podium has appeared in the room, with the slogan "stop the boats" printed on it.

Sunak takes aim at "criminal gangs" involved in illegal border crossings

“My policy is very simple. It is this country, and your government, who should decide who comes here. Not criminal gangs”

Those illegally crossing the channel were not directly fleeing a war-torn country, persecution, or an immediate threat to life, Sunak said. 

“They have travelled through safe European countries. They are paying people smugglers huge sums to make this dangerous and sometimes tragic journey.”

Sunak said the reason criminal gangs continued to bring small boats to the UK was because “they know our system can be exploited”.