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Illegal Migration Bill fails morally and politically, says Archbishop Welby

10 May 2023


The Archbishop of Canterbury speaks in Wednesday’s debate, flanked by the Bishop of Gloucester (left) and the Bishop of Durham

The Archbishop of Canterbury speaks in Wednesday’s debate, flanked by the Bishop of Gloucester (left) and the Bishop of Durham

THE Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishops of Durham and Gloucester have spoken against the Illegal Migration Bill during its second reading in the House of Lords on Wednesday.

“I urge the Government to reconsider much of the Bill, which fails to live up to our history, moral responsibility, and our political and international interests,” Archbishop Welby said. “Even if this Bill succeeded in temporarily stopping the boats — and I don’t think it will — it won’t stop conflict or climate migration.”

He continued: “This Bill has no sense at all of the long term and global nature of the challenge that the world faces. It ignores the reality that migration must be engaged with at source, as well as in the channel, as if we as a country were unrelated to the rest of the world. . .

“It does not draw in conflict management and prevention, which drives migration; it does not draw in climate impacts, which drive migration and conflict. It is isolationist, it is morally unacceptable, and politically impractical, to let the poorest countries deal with the crisis alone,” he said.

On the subject of small boats crossing the English channel, Archbishop Welby questioned the Government’s plan to stop human-trafficking gangs. He said that, rather than engaging with the problem “directly and offensively”, the Government was “trusting simply to what appears to be the unpredictability of market forces, as if traffickers were rationally trained economic actors, and not appalling criminals”.

In an interview on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday afternoon, the Immigration Minister, Robert Jenrick, said that Archbishop Welby was wrong. “There’s nothing moral about allowing the pernicious trade of people smugglers to continue. I want to see that stopped, and this Bill is the only way to do that,” he said.

The terms of the Bill, announced in March — which include removing protections for victims of modern slavery and imposing a blanket ban on hearing asylum cases from those who enter the country by an illegal route — have already been widely criticised, including by bishops (News, 14 March).

The Bill passed its third reading in the House of Commons in April, by 289 votes to 230, despite criticism from prominent Conservative MPs, including the former Prime Minister, Theresa May.

On Tuesday, the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, and the Secretary of State for Justice, Alex Chalk, urged peers to support the Bill. Writing in the Times, Ms Braverman and Mr Chalk said that it was “entirely right” for the Lords to scrutinise the Bill, but that this “must be balanced against the clear desire of the British people to control immigration”.

During the debate, the Labour Party’s spokesperson for home affairs, Lord Coaker responded to the article directly. “We don’t need lectures either from the Home Secretary or the Justice Secretary about the constitutional position of the Lords; we won’t be rushed or intimidated into giving the Bill an easy ride,” he said.

Seeking to take a constructive approach, Archbishop Welby urged peers not to support a wrecking amendment proposed by the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for home affairs, Lord Piddick. “It is our duty to change, not to throw out, the Bill,” Archbishop Welby said. “We need a Bill to reform migration, we need a bill to stop the boats, we need a bill to destroy the evil tribe of traffickers. The tragedy is that, without much change, this is not that Bill.”

Lord Coaker had previously indicated that, although his party opposed the Bill, it would not support Lord Paddick’s “motion of decline”, as doing so would prompt the Government to proceed under the Parliament Act and pass the Bill without the possibility of moderating amendments.

“We will propose amendments and press the Government to think again,” he said. Labour would attempt to “stand up for those who look to us for sanctuary and proposing workable humane solutions”.

In the debate, which started on Wednesday morning and is due to continue into Wednesday evening, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said that the Bill posed “fundamental questions about who we are as a nation”. He hoped that amendments would help it to “better reflect hope and a deeper humanity.”

The Bill’s ban on offering asylum to anyone who arrived by small boat would mean “refusing to offer a child or a victim of trafficking the dignity of having their asylum case heard,” he continued. “Almost three quarters of asylum cases assessed last year were found to be valid. Under the new regime, they will be automatically be deemed inadmissible.

“The State will view a child or a pregnant woman first and foremost as individuals subject to immigration control, not as an innocent child or a vulnerable mother due to give birth.”

Bishop Butler quoted Jesus in Matthew 18: “It would be better to have a millstone around the neck and be cast into the sea than to cause a little one to stumble.”

He said: “This responsibility needs to bear upon us heavily,” and said that all people were “worthy of compassion and respect: I hope our language in this debate reflects this truth”.

The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, focused on ways in which the Bill could affect women, including victims of abuse and gender-based violence, and called for a three-day limit on the detention of pregnant women to be reinstated.

She referred to the provisions in the Bill that would remove protections under the Modern Slavery Act for those who enter the country by illegal routes: “It surely cannot be right that no one who arrives here by irregular means will not be eligible to receive modern-slavery support. As we’ve heard, this Bill is proposing that victims of modern slavery will instead be subject to detention and removal to their own country. This seems wrong on many levels, not least morally,” she said.

Earlier in the debate, Baroness Lister, a Labour peer, criticised the language that had been used by the Government about asylum seekers. Two weeks ago, Mr Jenrick had said in a speech that “excessive uncontrolled migration threatens to cannibalise the compassion that marks out the British people”.

Such “dehumanising language”, Baroness Lister said, was intended to “create fear and hostility among the British people, undermining the very social cohesion they claim to be promoting, all in the name of compassion”.

Several Conservative peers spoke in favour of the Bill, including Lord Howard, a former Home Secretary, who, following Archbishop Welby’s speech, argued that the Bill was the “best option” currently available to the Government.

Lord Forsyth, another Conservative peer, suggested that critics of the Bill had failed to provide any alternatives, prompting an interjection by Archbishop Welby, who suggested that, if Lord Forsyth looked at Hansard for a debate which occured in December, he would “find a whole day of debate on immigration which puts forward some very clear ideas about stopping the boats” (News, 9 December 2022).

Lord Forsyth replied that he was “in strong agreement” with Archbishop Welby, but only on “issues spiritual rather than temporal”.

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