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Government Accused of Bullying and Intimidation Over Small Boats Bill

Claim was made by peers on Monday as the Illegal Migration Bill came under more scrutiny

Peers say they have been “abused, bullied and intimidated” by the government over legislation to stop the small boats crisis.

In what was yet another marathon and rocky session through the House of Lords, the Illegal Migration Bill was torn apart line-by-line into the early hours of Tuesday with some members saying they were “shaking with tiredness.”

Monday marked the fourth day peers discussed the bill, with proceedings starting at 2:30 p.m. before the upper chamber finally rose at 2 a.m. Tuesday.

Last week saw proceedings continue until 4:16 a.m. as peers discussed in detail the flagship legislation, which has so far encountered almost unanimous opposition in the Lords.

The bill, which has already made it through the Commons, aims to ensure those who arrive in the UK without permission will be detained and promptly deported, either to their home country or a third country such as Rwanda.

Critics argue the draft legislation breaks international law and undermines modern slavery protections.

Expressing her frustration as the sitting continued into Tuesday morning, Baroness Ludford said: “This bill got almost no scrutiny in the other place (the Commons). When we do try to do it (our job) we are abused, bullied and intimidated as we were until 4:20 a.m. last Thursday.

“It would be perfectly possible to have an agreed more rational timetable for this bill.

“I do not appreciate the behaviour of the government over this bill.”

Disruption of Trafficker Prosecutions

Labour peer Baroness Lister of Burtersett—who told the chamber she was “shaking with tiredness”—said, “Sometimes there is repetition because there is no evidence the minister listens.”

She added: “The main repetition I heard this evening was from the government benches. We could have done without that.”

Tory peer Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts had criticised told the opposition, “We would move forward a great deal faster if we hadn’t had so many repetitious speeches.”

Shortly into Monday’s debate, a former director of public prosecutions warned that stripping modern slavery protections from small boat migrants will make it harder to bring people traffickers to justice.

Speaking at Westminster, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven argued the proposals would frustrate efforts in getting witnesses to give evidence against the criminal gangs.

The independent crossbencher branded the Illegal Migration Bill “anti-prosecution.”

The draft legislation applies even if a person claims to be a victim of trafficking or modern slavery. They would be barred from accessing protections and support that would normally be available to them under the law.

Even if a victim is cooperating with an investigation and criminal proceedings, the assumption is they do not need to be in the UK to provide assistance unless there are “compelling circumstances”.

The government has argued the modern slavery laws are being abused, but many dispute this.

Macdonald argued a key part of dealing with the small boats problem was “firm domestic law enforcement against the traffickers.”

He said: “It’s very difficult for me to conceive of successful cases against traffickers without the cooperation of their victims. Persuading victims of crime, including human trafficking, to give evidence against their tormentors is difficult, complex, sensitive, time-consuming work.

“For the most obvious of reasons that the victims themselves feel under threat.”

Epoch Times Photo
Handout photo issued by UK Parliament of Lord Murray of Blidworth speaking in the House of Lords, London, during the debate on the Government’s Illegal Migration Bill on May 10, 2023. (House of Lords 2023/Roger Harris)

‘Dishonourable Disgrace’

Macdonald said the bill would give cooperating witnesses “no encouragement, no succour, no assistance, no help whatsoever.”

“It will undoubtedly in my judgement make successful cases against the traffickers less likely,” he added.

“This is a bill which is not simply in my judgement anti-asylum, it is anti-prosecution.”

Leading lawyer Lord Carlile of Berriew said, “Anything that any government do to inhibit the prosecution of modern slavery cases is not just regrettable but a manifestly dishonourable disgrace.”

Labour frontbencher Lord Coaker described the bill as “a blanket approach to sexual slaves, child labour and forced labour” that will leave victims “without hope.”

“Instead of tackling the criminal gangs, the government are tackling the victims,” he said.

“It is like the victims of a burglary being charged for allowing their home to be burgled—forget the burglars and trying to tackle them.”

Tory peer Baroness Helic, a former adviser to William Hague when he was foreign secretary, said the provisions of the Illegal Migration Bill will reduce the number of people coming forward with evidence, and make prosecutions harder.

“If we want to prevent dangerous illegal migration we need to tackle the traffickers who facilitate it.,” she said.

“Targeting the victims will only make that harder.”

Lady Stroud, a former special adviser to Sir Iain Duncan Smith, said the bill in its current form not only prevents the care of slavery victims but also damages the UK’s reputation.

She argued its measures were “systematically dismantling” modern slavery legislation.

Stroud added: “It will give the slave drivers and traffickers another weapon to hold people in slavery and exploitation.”

Epoch Times Photo
Undated handout of migrants being rescued in the English Channel as it’s revealed over 600 were rescued in one day in June 2023. (Gareth Fuller/PA)

‘Bold and Radical Action’

Last week, peers heckled Home Office minister Lord Murray of Blidworth after he refused to commit to providing the Lords with an economic impact assessment on the controversial legislation.

The Tory minister said the already completed document would be available to peers “in due course” but could not say whether this would happen before the bill moves from the House.

Former senior judge and independent cross-bench peer Baroness Butler-Sloss said it was “outrageous” peers were being asked to take decisions on the proposals without knowing the predicted impact of them.

Highlighting the lack of an impact assessment on the bill again on Monday, Lord Morrow said: “We are being asked to sign a blank cheque on a policy without evidence of how it will be implemented or how it will deter the exploitation of victims of modern slavery.”

Responding to the criticism, Murray said the government needs “bold and radical action” to tackle the ‘dangerous, illegal and unnecessary crossings” in the English Channel.

He said: “We will only deter such crossings if those who would seek to make them know they won’t be able to build a life in the UK. Instead, they will be liable to be detained and swiftly removed.

“To achieve this it is necessary not only to make asylum and human rights claims inadmissible, but also to withhold modern slavery protections from those who meet the conditions.”

He added: “If we add exceptions, exclusions and exemptions we will significantly undermine the efficacy of the bill overall and the scheme will be undermined making it unworkable.”

The debate comes after some 616 people were detected crossing the Channel in small boats on Sunday—the highest number this year—according to Home Office figures.

It means the number of crossings in 2023 now stands at a provisional total of 8,313, compared with around 10,000 at the same point last year.

The number who made the crossing in 2022 reached a record 45,755, prompting Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to make tackling small boat crossings a priority for his government this year.

PA Media contributed to this report.

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