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Peers support Welby’s plan to tackle refugee crisis, after MPs whipped to reject amendments

13 July 2023


Theresa May speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday, during the consideration of the Lords amendments to the Illegal Migration Bill

Theresa May speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday, during the consideration of the Lords amendments to the Illegal Migration Bill

THE House of Lords has for a second time backed the Archbishop of Canterbury’s call for an “ambitious” ten-year strategy to address the refugee and human-trafficking crises.

His amendment to the Illegal Migration Bill was passed by a majority of more than 50 votes during the continuation of the Report Stage last week. It was voted down by MPs on Tuesday evening, however, after a long debate in the House of Commons. The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, had written to all MPs asking them to vote against all 20 amendments made by peers. All amendments were voted down during a series of 18 votes.

On Wednesday night, however, when the Bill returned to the Lords for peers to consider the MPs’ changes, Archbishop Welby’s amendment was carried by 154 to 107 just before the session was adjourned, around midnight. The Bill is due to return for consideration on Monday.

Before moving his motion again, Archbishop Welby told peers: “When this amendment was tabled in its previous form last week, it produced considerable reconciliation and unity across the House. It was agreed that this is a massive, international issue on a generational basis and that tackling it needs profound thinking on a long-term basis. Legislation and strategy must be fitted to the problem, not the problem to the legislation. That is not how it works.”

He described the change to the Bill as a “moment of reconciliation and an opportunity for profound long-term thought” which “provides accountability” and “enables flexibility”.

Archbishop Welby concluded that, if the “ping-pong” of the Bill between the Lords and Commons continued, there were “other ways of doing it”; he would be “very happy and open to talk about alternative, but solid and dependable, ways of achieving the same ends for our country: reconciliation over this issue, accountability for this and future governments, flexibility in strategy, and leadership in the world”.

Speaking in the Commons on Tuesday, the Immigration Minister, Robert Jenrick, had described Archbishop Welby’s amendment, which called for the Government to develop a ten-year strategy on refugees and human trafficking, as “well-meaning but unnecessary.

“It is a distraction from the immediate priority of stopping the boats and tackling the threat to life arising from dangerous, illegal, and unnecessary Channel crossings. That is the aim of the Bill, and the Lords amendment does not reflect the actions that we have already taken through cross-government initiatives to tackle the refugee crisis and through the ongoing work to deliver our strategic approach to tackling human trafficking.”

The former Prime Minister Theresa May was among MPs who spoke against the Bill in the Commons. “I know that Ministers have said that this Bill will enable more perpetrators to be stopped, but on modern slavery I genuinely believe it will do the opposite: it will enable more slave drivers to operate and make money out of human misery,” she said. “It will consign more people to slavery.”

Archbishop Welby had told peers last week that his amendment should be done through a series of policies, the first of which must be made within a year of passing the Act, the second within another 12 months. The amendment was a combination of two put forward by the Archbishop at Committee Stage which had not gained government support.

Archbishop Welby said that the UK needed “a long-term vision and strategy that reaches beyond short-term electoral cycles and allows this issue to be taken out of an entirely political agenda. The 1951 refugee convention is a fundamental basis for the care and protection of refugees. The convention should be built upon and added to, in collaboration with other signatories and international partners for the particular context that we face today, to ensure that we share responsibility fairly and work together effectively across borders.”

Ministers had argued during Committee Stage that this would “tie the hands of future governments” — but Archbishop Welby said that there were existing long-term policies in other areas, including security and climate change.

A long-term strategy would, he said, “consider actions in these areas right across the piece, joining up government in every area. The fact that we are here debating a second migration Bill in as many years suggests that this might well be useful.”

There was “much wisdom in this House” to make this work.

Archbishop Welby concluded: “I want to stress that this amendment does not wreck or damage the Bill, or set intentions for the Government to follow. . . This amendment is a positive and constructive suggestion, whatever I or others may feel about the Bill in general.

“I urge the Government to develop a strategy that is ambitious, collaborative, worthy of our history, and up to the scale of the enormous challenges we face.”

Several peers spoke in support of the amendment. Lord Green (Conservative) said that he had intended to vote against the proposal, but had been persuaded by the Archbishop that it was a “useful” one. He warned that “the public are very angry” about the migration crisis, and it would be a problem for future governments, too.

Baroness Lawlor (Conservative) was among those to disagree. “The Bill is to deter and prevent illegal entry into the UK,” she said. “It is not a Bill about international agreements into which the UK may enter in the future, modify, or make. It is for the Government of the day to propose a policy, not the unelected Chamber.” 

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