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Bishops seek protection for vulnerable groups in Illegal Migration Bill

04 July 2023

Amendments passed despite government opposition

Alamy

A sign outside the Home Office this week protesting against floating accommodation for migrant

A sign outside the Home Office this week protesting against floating accommodation for migrant

BISHOPS were among the peers to push through several amendments to the Illegal Migration Bill this week in a bid to protect children, pregnant women, and LGBT+ people.

The Bill continued through the report stage in the House of Lords on Monday afternoon. By Monday night, several amendments to the Bill had been approved by margins of more than 50 votes.

Among these was the introduction of strict time limits on the detention of pregnant women arriving into the UK via illegal routes. Under existing powers of immigration detention, the limit is 72 hours (compared to 28 days under the new Bill).

The amendment was moved by Baroness Lister, who said: “These are women who are likely to be very stressed and may already be traumatised by what they have been through, with damaging effects on their unborn baby. Twenty-eight days in detention is a long time, particularly in the context of a pregnancy.”

She was backed by the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, who told peers: “This is an issue of dignity for a highly vulnerable group. . . There is no evidence to suggest that the current 72-hour time limit on their detentions resulted in lots of pregnant women making the crossing. The Government have previously conceded that the adults at risk policy would not adequately safeguard pregnant women, and, in response, the 72-hour limit was brought in.

“We have research from prior to the introduction of this time limit that highlighted the inadequate healthcare for detained pregnant women. It is hard to believe that any healthcare arrangements would therefore relieve the stress of detention and the damaging impact on both a pregnant woman and her unborn baby.”

The amendment was agreed in under two hours.

Later in the debate, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, moved an amendment concerning the protection of unaccompanied children. It required that, “if a child is to be transferred from local authority child protection systems, a justification should be provided as to why it is in their best interests to be looked after by the Home Office rather than the local authority.”

Introducing it, he said: “It is a damning indictment that an amendment of this nature is even required, as it proposes such a basic safeguard to ensure the well-being of unaccompanied children.”

Councils should not be forced to transfer children out of their care regardless of safeguarding and protection concerns, he said. And while the Government had previously asserted that no children were being accommodated in Home Office hotels, ministers had not accounted for the 186 children who remained unaccounted for.

Regardless of the final legislation, two things remained true, he said: that the Children Act 1989 mandated that any child under the care of the Home Office should have access to the same level of care and protection as any other child in need; and that “the Home Office does not have the expertise, knowledge, or experience to look after children.”

He concluded: “Therefore, it is only right and just that the power to remove a child from the well-established care system should be exercised only when a child’s well-being will be served by doing so — I suspect that that would be very rare. I share the fear of the Children’s Commissioner that accommodating children outside of foster families or children’s homes will be harmful and unsafe; we have no evidence to the contrary.”

The amendment was agreed by 218 to 158. Another amendment that sought to ensure that the Children Act applied to unaccompanied children on their arrival into the UK as soon as their age was determined was withdrawn in lieu of Bishop Butler’s amendment.

The Conservative peer Baroness Lawlor was among those to oppose both amendments — to calls of “shame” from the House. She argued that these “could and would give families across the world an incentive to try to get their children into this country”.

During the earlier report stages of the Bill, last week, Bishop Butler co-signed an amendment tabled by Lord Dubs which sought to prevent children claiming asylum in the UK from being automatically turned away based on how they had travelled and arrived in the country.

The Bill was “shutting the door on some of the most vulnerable human beings on earth: refugee children” who had “escaped the most appalling situations”, Lord Dubs said.

Speaking on behalf of Bishop Butler, the Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, said: “The Bill will prevent potentially thousands of children ever claiming refugee protection in the UK, however serious their protection needs may be, and, disturbingly, regardless of the fact that they may not have had any say in the decision to travel here irregularly.

“This means that vulnerable unaccompanied children who have fled unimaginable horrors will arrive to find that they will be detained and then potentially accommodated by the Home Office outside the established care system. All of this is not in order for their asylum cases to be heard and assessed but simply to deter others.”

The amendment was carried by 185 votes to 133.

In the same debate, Dr Francis-Dehqani spoke in support of an amendment that would replace the first clause of the Bill with one that ensured compliance with the UK’s international obligations under human rights, refugee, child protection, and anti-trafficking conventions.

Tabling the amendment, Baroness Chakrabarti said: “This interpretation amendment is essential to protecting the most vulnerable people.”

Dr Francis-Dehqani reflected “on the moral imperative for us to take seriously the commitments we have made in past decades. . . We should be proud of our involvement in advocating for the rights of every single human being.”

This was especially important, she said, “given much of the unfortunate rhetoric and misinformation present around the Bill and last year’s Nationality and Borders Act. Language matters and it forms perceptions, sometimes false perceptions. For example, we hear repeatedly that refugees should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, even when the majority of refugees already do this, and even though the refugee convention makes no such obligation on people to claim asylum where they first find themselves.”

The amendment was agreed by 222 to 179.

Speaking later in the debate, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, asked for evidence to back government claims that people were abusing UK modern slavery laws to enter the country.

It was based on no evidence, he said, that the Government wanted to remove “basic protections” for vulnerable people. “Traffickers exercise control over their victims by convincing them that they will not receive help from the authorities if they seek it. The Bill will simply add credence to that claim.”

Dr Walker later supported an amendment which sought to prevent LGBT+ asylum- seekers from being deported to countries which were known for persecuting LGBT+ people. The Bishop said that, if the Government’s travel advice to British tourists was that “they should not be open about their sexuality when visiting certain countries”, then “those same countries are not places to which we should remove LGBTQI+ people” and “the Bill must provide explicit protection to that end.”

The debate was adjourned, but the amendment was agreed on Monday afternoon: 216 votes to 147.

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