Immigration Bill: We must now turn to the Lords to uphold our proud tradition of liberty

Posted by Rachel Robinson on 02 December 2015

During Report stage consideration of the Immigration Bill yesterday, the Commons debated issues which go to the heart of our national conscience. How do we treat those in desperate need, including children? What is the minimum of dignity and respect that our country should afford to everyone within our borders? How do we uphold fair play, compassion and the British sense of justice?

Whether it is through destitution, endless immigration detention or sowing the seeds of racial disharmony, the Government seems determined to make the United Kingdom a hostile environment for us all.

Dickensian and discriminatory

The main opposition parties expressed grave concerns about the Government’s discredited right to rent scheme, which already provides for private landlords to do the work of immigration officers and has led to discrimination in practice.

The scheme would be dramatically escalated under the Bill, with the introduction of criminal sanctions for landlords and summary eviction powers instigated on the say-so of the Secretary of State.

SNP immigration and asylum spokesperson Stuart McDonald described the Bill’s summary eviction powers as Dickensian. He was joined in this condemnation by shadow Immigration Minister Keir Starmer, who warned against changes which would see families turned out on the street.

Many SNP members rose to condemn right to rent in its entirety, warning of the risk it poses to race relations – and shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham pointed to feelings of victimisation amongst minority groups. 

All this from a Government which claims to care about social cohesion. 

A criminal lack of compassion

Provisions designed to remove mainstream asylum support from families with small children also come under attack, and were variously described as “counterproductive”, an attempt to “starve people out” and as demonstrating a “criminal lack of compassion”. MPs highlighted a Home Office pilot of similar powers in 2005 which proved the approach is as ineffective as it is inhumane, with many families absconding once support was removed and no real enforcement gains.

A proposed criminal offence of illegal working was condemned, with MPs warning of the impact on the most vulnerable – including trafficking victims – and stressing that proposals will prevent victims from coming forward. 

Like so much else in this Bill, provisions designed to remove support from the desperate and criminalise the exploited are not serious attempts to grapple with illegal immigration: they are an attempt to look tough and – as one Conservative MP admitted – beat UKIP at its own game.

Appetite for reform

Attempts to inject some desperately needed compassion into the Bill continued with an amendment designed to broaden the rules on reunion of refugee families. At the moment, they only make provision for spouses and minor children, meaning many refugees are separated from family members on whom they rely for care and support.  

Calls for compassion also dominated the debate on the scourge of unlimited immigration detention. An amendment calling for a 28-day time-limit – with Conservative, Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrat and Green support – was extensively debated.

Conservative MP Richard Fuller told the House this was an issue central to his ethical code. He spoke of the British sense of justice, and of the appetite across Parliament for reform of our inhumane detention system. He was joined in his calls for reform by Conservative colleague David Burrowes, who invoked respect for British traditions of fair play and highlighted the many vulnerable people who end up in detention, including pregnant women and victims of torture. 

SNP lead Stuart McDonald told the House his party wanted to move immediately towards a 28-day limit – and his SNP colleague Joanna Cherry reminded the House of the risks to mental health that can result from detention of more than a month. Labour lead Keir Starmer reminded MPs of the words of the cross-party Inquiry on the Use of Immigration Detention: “the UK has a proud tradition of upholding justice and the right to liberty… the continued use of indefinite detention puts this tradition at risk”. 

Although both main opposition parties voted against the Bill as a whole, it completed its Commons passage unscathed.

As the 800th anniversary year of Magna Carta draws to a close, we must now turn to the Lords to uphold our proud tradition of liberty.

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Immigration Act 2016

Rachel Robinson

Rachel Robinson

Policy and Advocacy Manager