A victory for human rights and justice: Lords amend the Immigration Bill

Posted by Rachel Robinson on 10 March 2016

Last night, as they debated the Government’s pernicious Immigration Bill in the House of Lords, Peers seized the opportunity to inject some much needed compassion into legislation rammed full of cruel and divisive proposals.

Crossbench Peer Lord Alton of Liverpool led the charge on an amendment to let asylum seekers work in this country if their claims are not determined within the Home Office target time of six months.

Latest immigration statistics show that between October and December, some 3,600 asylum seekers were left without a decision after six months, forcing them and their dependants to live on paltry and diminishing Government handouts amounting to roughly £5 a day. 

In the words of Lord Alton, last night’s amendment was about self-help: allowing people to use their time and skills to pull themselves out of poverty “rather than simply leaving asylum seekers to eke out a pitiful existence on a monetary subvention by the state”.

Regaining dignity

The amendment received strong support from Labour and Liberal Democrat front benchers. Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson, Lady Hamwee, spoke of the need not only to provide a route out of poverty, but also “the opportunity to regain dignity”. 

Labour Home Affairs lead, Lord Rosser, reminded the Government that the lengthy delays faced by many asylum seekers result from Home Office inefficiency that the department claims to have brought under control.

In reality, delays remain a significant feature of our asylum system. As former Supreme Court Justice, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, pointed out: “if, as I hope, one consequence of the passing of this amendment were the further speeding up of the decision-making process, that would be a most welcome additional benefit.”

Religious leaders joined forces to plead for a little compassion and humanity. Senior Rabbi, Baroness Neuberger, spoke of the desperate need her Synagogue encounters amongst the asylum seekers it tries to support, stressing that they had no wish to subsist on charity and handouts – “they want to work and make a contribution”. 

The Lord Bishop of Durham described asylum seekers he had met who “want to be able to uphold their human dignity and feel that the best way of doing that is to become contributors to this society.”

After countering the same tired, unsubstantiated claims from Government, Lord Alton led the House of Lords to a victory for common sense and humanity, decisively winning the vote 280 to 195.

Overseas Domestic Workers

Hot on the heels of this overwhelming victory, Peers turned to an issue Liberty has campaigned on for many years.

Since changes in April 2012, Overseas Domestic Workers have been tied to one employer - increasing their vulnerability to exploitation and abuse. Crossbench Peer Lord Hylton tabled a vital amendment which would allow people to change employer – within their work sector – and renew their visa to allow for up to a two-and-a-half year stay in the UK. 

The amendment would implement the recommendations of James Ewins QC, commissioned by the Government to conduct an inquiry into the impact of the current immigration rules on this particularly vulnerable group.

Peers showed they had not been pacified by the impractical suggestions of Ministers who refused to take the advice provided by the leading expert they themselves had asked to review this issue. 

Lord Hylton reminded the House that “the scandal of abuse, exploitation and slave-like conditions has gone on for far too long, with impunity, and in some of the most prosperous parts of London.” For Labour, Lord Rosser pointed out that an “overseas domestic worker is more likely to report abuse if they have left the control of the employer concerned and have relative security”.

Lord Hylton’s amendment would not only benefit the individual able to escape modern day slavery, but would help bring perpetrators to account – protecting more women from suffering the same fate. Further support came from the Liberal Democrats' Baroness Hamwee who explained how the Government’s proposals for reform simply failed to provide the level of protection required.

This issue has come before Peers many times, most notably during the passage of the Modern Slavery Act when the Lords voted for an end to the tied visa system. So well-known are the issues and so strong is the case that, after a short debate, the Government faced another decisive defeat.

Today we can celebrate a victory for human rights and justice in a package of proposals that will otherwise sow discrimination and disharmony.

The battle is now on to ensure the progress made in the Lords is not reversed when the Bill returns to the House of Commons. Last night’s results give us hope for the amendments to come during debates on 15 and 21 March – including those aimed at making sure the UK does more to protect and support refugees who so desperately need our help. 

Rachel Robinson

Rachel Robinson

Policy and Advocacy Manager