Robert Jenrick – 2023 Statement on the Illegal Migration Bill

The statement made by Robert Jenrick, the Minister for Immigration, in the House of Commons on 17 July 2023.

This House sent back to the House of Lords its 20 amendments to the Bill, many of which simply drove a coach and horses through the fabric of the legislation. We brought forward reasonable amendments where it was sensible to do so and it is disappointing, to say the least, the some of those have been rejected. I welcome the fact that the 20 issues that we debated last week have now been whittled down to nine, but the issue now before us is whether the clearly expressed views of this House, the elected Chamber—not just in the votes last week, but throughout the earlier passage of the Bill—should prevail.

We believe that inaction is not an option, that we must stop the boats and that the Bill is a key part of our plan to do just that. The message and the means must be absolutely clear and unambiguous: if people come to the UK illegally, they will not be able to stay here. Instead, they will be detained and returned to their home country or removed to a safe third country. There is simply no point in passing legislation that does not deliver a credible deterrent or provide the means to back it up with effective and swift enforcement powers.

We cannot accept amendments that provide for exceptions, qualifications and loopholes that would simply perpetuate the current cycle of delays and endless late and repeated legal challenges to removal. I listened carefully to the debate in the other place, but no new arguments were forthcoming and certainly no credible alternatives were provided.

Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con)

I thoroughly endorse what my right hon. Friend says. This is a matter of extreme national interest, as is reflected in the votes of constituents throughout the country. They feel very strongly about these matters. Does he not agree that it is time for their lordships to take note of the fact that the British people want this legislation to go through? They want progress, given the extreme difficulties this is presenting to the British people.

Robert Jenrick

I strongly endorse my hon. Friend’s comments. This is an issue of the highest importance to the people we serve in this place. Of course there is a legitimate role for the other place in scrutinising legislation, but now is the time to move forward and pass this law to enable us to stop the boats.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has noted the remarks of Lord Clarke, who is not a particularly vicious right-wing creature. He said this Bill is entirely necessary and that we have to get on with it.

I also wonder whether my right hon. Friend has looked at today’s remarks by Lord Heseltine.

Lord Clarke and Lord Heseltine seem to have come up with a sensible option. We should go ahead with this Bill. We have to have much better European co-operation and, really, we have to build a wall around Europe. [Interruption.] And we have to do much more—this is what the Opposition might like—in terms of a Marshall plan to try to remove the conditions of sheer misery that cause people to want to leave these countries in the first place.

Robert Jenrick

I read the remarks of the noble Lord Clarke, and I entirely agree with his point, which is that, having listened to the totality of the debate in the House of Lords, he had not heard a single credible alternative to the Government’s plan. For that reason alone, it is important to support the Government.

I also agree with Lord Clarke’s broader point that this policy should not be the totality of our response to this challenge. Deterrence is an essential part of the plan, but we also need to work closely with our partners in Europe and further upstream. One initiative that the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and I have sought to pursue in recent months is to ensure that the United Kingdom is a strategic partner to each and every country that shares our determination to tackle this issue, from Turkey and Tunisia to France and Belgium.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con)

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. I believe that the Bill should go through, as we have to do something about the deaths in the channel, which is an important moral purpose.

I bring my right hon. Friend back to Lord Randall’s amendment on modern slavery. We agree quite a lot on this issue, and the Government have said that they will do stuff in guidance, so Lord Randall has taken the words spoken by my right hon. Friend at the Dispatch Box and put them on the face of the Bill—this amendment does exactly what my right hon. Friend promised the Government would do in guidance. The Government have not issued the guidance in detail, which is why the amendment was made. Why would we vote against the amendment today when my right hon. Friend’s words and prescriptions are now on the face of the Bill?

Robert Jenrick

First, the Lords amendment on modern slavery goes further by making the scheme, as we see it, much more difficult to establish. There are a number of reasons but, in particular, we think the complexity of the issue requires it to be provided for in statutory guidance rather than on the face of the Bill, in line with my assurances made on the Floor of the House. One of those assurances is particularly challenging to put in statutory guidance—where an incident has taken place in the United Kingdom, rather than an individual being trafficked here—and that is the point Lord Randall helpfully tried to bring forward.

We are clear that the process I have set out should be set out in statutory guidance, because the wording of the amendment is open to abuse by those looking to exploit loopholes. Those arriving in small boats would seek to argue that they have been trafficked into the UK and that the 30-day grace period should apply to them, on the basis that they qualify as soon as they reach UK territorial waters. The proposed provision is, for that reason, operationally impossible and serves only to create another loophole that would render the swift removal we seek impossible or impractical. The statutory guidance can better describe and qualify this commitment, by making it clear that the exploitation must have occurred once the person had spent a period of time within the UK and not immediately they get off the small boat in Kent. For that reason, we consider it better to place this on a statutory footing as guidance rather than putting it in the Bill.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

The Democratic Unionist party is concerned about the trafficking of children and young people. My question is a simple one. We see economic migrants who are fit and healthy but none the less make that journey, and we see those who have had to leave their country because they have been persecuted, discriminated against or been subjected to brutal violence, or because their family members have been murdered. My party and I want to be assured that those who flee persecution have protection within this law, because we do not see that they do.

Robert Jenrick

We believe that they do, because at the heart of this scheme is the principle that if an individual comes to the UK illegally on a small boat, they will be removed back home if it is safe to do that—if they are going to a safe home country such as Albania. In determining that the country is safe, for example, as in the case of Albania, we would have sought specific assurances from it, if required. Alternatively, they will be removed to a safe third country, such as Rwanda, where, again we would have sought sufficient assurances that an individual would be well-treated there. As the hon. Gentleman can see in the courts at the moment, those assurances will be tested. So it is not the intention of the UK Government to expose any genuine victim of persecution to difficulties by removing them either back home and, in the process, enabling their refoulement, or to a country in which they would be unsafe. We want to establish a significant deterrent to stop people coming here in the first place, bearing in mind that the overwhelming majority of the individuals we are talking about who would be caught by the Bill were already in a place of safety. They were in France, which is clearly a safe country that has a fully functioning asylum system.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)

Let me take the right hon. Gentleman back to the criticism he was making of the other place, because if the elected House is about to break international law, it is entirely fitting that the other place should try to prevent that from happening. The Minister has stood at the Dispatch Box telling us that this Bill is about deterrence, whereas the Home Office’s own impact assessment has said:

“The Bill is a novel and untested scheme, and it is therefore uncertain what level of deterrence impact it will have.”

As a raft of children’s charities have pointed out, once routine child detention was ended in 2011 there was no proportional increase in children claiming asylum. So will he come clean and accept that this Bill absolutely will have the effect, even if it does not have the intention, of meaning that people trying to escape persecution will not be able to come here, because there are not sufficient safe and legal routes?

Robert Jenrick

I am not sure exactly what the hon. Lady’s question was. If it was about access to safe and legal routes, let me be clear, as I have in numerous debates on this topic, that since 2015 the UK has welcomed more than 500,000 individuals here—it is nearer to 550,000 now—for humanitarian purposes. That is a very large number. The last statistics I saw showed that we were behind only the United States, Canada and Sweden on our global United Nations-managed safe and legal routes, and we were one of the world’s biggest countries for resettlement schemes. That is a very proud record. The greatest inhibitor today to the UK doing more on safe and legal routes is the number of people coming across the channel illegally on small boats, taking up capacity in our asylum and immigration system. She knows that only too well, because we have discussed on a number of occasions one of the most concerning symptoms of this issue, which is unaccompanied children who are having to stay in a Home Office-procured hotel near to her constituency because local authorities do not have capacity to flow those individuals into safe and loving foster care as quickly as we would wish. That issue is exactly emblematic of the problem that we are trying to fix. If we can stop the small boats, we can do more, as a country, and be an even greater force for good in the world.

Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)

Will the Minister set out how my constituent will be protected? He is Albanian and has been subjected to modern slavery by gangs from Albania. He has three bullet holes in his body and, if he returns, perhaps those gangs will give him more. How will he be protected?

Robert Jenrick

The existing arrangement that we have secured with Albania—incidentally, Albania is a signatory to the European convention against trafficking — enables us to safely return somebody home to Albania, with specific assurances to prevent them being retrafficked to the United Kingdom and to enable them to be supported appropriately upon arrival.

On the broader issue of modern slavery, the Bill makes a number of important protections when we establish the scheme. If they are party to a law enforcement investigation, their removal from the country will be stayed. We have said that we will bring forward statutory guidance, giving them a 30-day period, allied to the period set out in ECAT, to come forward and work with law enforcement, which is extendable if that enforcement activity goes on for some time. We would then only remove that person either back home to a safe country, such as Albania, or to a country, such as Rwanda, where we have put in place appropriate procedures to ensure that that Government, in turn, looks after them.

I point the hon. Lady to the judgment in the Court of Appeal that made some criticisms of the Government’s approach, but did not say that the arrangements in Rwanda with respect to modern slaves were inappropriate; it supported the Government in that regard. We will clearly put in place appropriate procedures to ensure that victims, such as the one she refers to, are properly supported.

Tom Hunt (Ipswich) (Con)

Many opponents of the Bill seem to support uncapped safe and legal routes. The reality of that would be that potentially over 1 million people could get the ability to come here. Does the Minister agree that those proposing that should be open and honest about it, and explain what the dramatic consequences would be for public services and community cohesion in this country?

Robert Jenrick

I completely agree. Anyone who feels that this country has sufficient resource to welcome significant further numbers of individuals at the present time, should look at the inbox of the Minister for Immigration. It is full of emails and letters from members of the public, local authorities and Members of Parliament, on both sides of the House, complaining that they do not want to see further dispersal accommodation and worrying about GP surgery appointments, pressure on local public services and further hotels. I understand all those concerns, which is why we need an honest debate about the issue.

That is why, at the heart of the Bill, there is not only a tough deterrent position for new illegal entrants, but a consultation on safe and legal routes, where we specifically ask local authorities, “What is your true capacity?” If we bring forward further safe and legal routes, they will be rooted in capacity in local authorities, so that those individuals are not destined to be in hotels for months or years, but go straight to housing and support in local authorities. That must be the right way for us to live up to our international obligations, rather than the present situation that, all too often, is performative here, and then there are major problems down the road.

Let me reply to issues other than modern slavery in the amendments before us. On the issue of detention, we believe that a necessary part of the scheme, provided for in the Bill, is that there are strong powers. Where those subject to removal are not detained, the prospects of being able to effect removal are significantly reduced, given the likelihood of a person absconding, especially towards the end of the process.

We have made changes to the provision for pregnant women, which I am pleased have been accepted by the Lords, and unaccompanied children, but it is necessary for the powers to cover family groups, as to do otherwise would introduce a gaping hole in the scheme, as adult migrants and the most disgusting people smugglers would seek to profit from migrants and look to co-opt unaccompanied children to bogus family groups to avoid detention. That not only prevents the removal of the adults, but presents a very real safeguarding risk to children.

On unaccompanied children, we stand by the amendments agreed by the House last week. They provided a clear differentiation between the arrangements for the detention of adults and those for the detention of unaccompanied children. The amendments agreed by this House provide for judicial oversight after eight days’ detention where that detention is for the purpose of removal.

On the standards of accommodation, I have been clear that unaccompanied children, including those whose age is disputed, will be detained only in age-appropriate accommodation, and that existing secondary legislation—the Detention Centre Rules 2001—sets out important principles governing the standards of such accommodation.

Last week, some Members asked whether unaccompanied children would also receive age-appropriate care while in detention. The answer to that is an emphatic yes. The operating standards for immigration removal centres contain provisions around the treatment of children, including requirements on the education and play facilities that must be provided for children.

Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)

I thank my right hon. Friend for making it clear that, if there is any doubt about the age of an unaccompanied child, they will be treated as a child. I also thank him for saying that, if a child is detained, it will be in an age-appropriate centre. However, on the issue of what is age-appropriate, I will just say that I have looked at the operating standards to which he referred. It is an 82-page document. It has no mention of unaccompanied children. It talks about who looks after the locks and hinges and where the tools and the ladders are to be stored, but there is nothing about how we keep these children happy, healthy and safe from harm. I point him instead to the guidance for children’s care homes and ask him gently if we could update the rules on detention centres to make sure that they look more like the rules we have for safeguarding children in care homes.

Robert Jenrick

My right hon. Friend makes a number of important points. The guidance is very detailed, but I am sure that it would benefit from updating. Therefore, the points that she has made and that other right hon. and hon. Members have made in the past will be noted by Home Office officials. As we operationalise this policy, we will be careful to take those into consideration. We are all united in our belief that those young people who are in our care need to be treated appropriately.

Let me turn now to the Lords amendment on modern slavery—I hope that I have answered the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith). This seeks to enshrine in the Bill some of the assurances that I provided in my remarks last week in respect of people who are exploited in the UK. However, for the reason that I have just described, we think that that is better done through statutory guidance. In fact, it would be impractical, if not impossible, to do it through the Bill.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith

The point that my right hon. Friend made earlier is that, somehow, those people will be able to get into the UK and make a false claim. However, the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 already provides for that, so anyone found to have made a false claim will be disqualified, and disqualified quite quickly. The critical thing is to prosecute the traffickers. That way, we can stop them trafficking more people on the boats. My worry is that this provision will put off many people from giving evidence and co-operating with the police for fear that they may still be overridden and sent abroad while they are doing it and then be picked up by the traffickers. Does he give any credence to the fear that this may end up reducing the number of prosecutions of traffickers as a result?

Robert Jenrick

I understand my right hon. Friend’s position, and it is right that he is vocalising it, but we do not believe that what he says is likely. The provision that we have made in the statutory guidance that I have announced will give an individual 30 days from the positive reasonable grounds decision to confirm that they will co-operate with an investigation in relation to their exploitation. That should give them a period of time to recover, to come forward and to work with law-enforcement. That is a period of time aligned with the provisions of ECAT, so we rely on the decision of the drafters of ECAT to choose 30 days rather than another, potentially longer, period. That is an extendable period, so where a person continues to co-operate with such an investigation, they will continue to be entitled to the support and the protections of the national referral mechanism for a longer period.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith

I just want to make it clear that under the new regulations, the Secretary of State can still feasibly decide that, even if someone is co-operating, they do not need to remain in the UK for that. That is the critical bit: they live under the fear that they can be moved somewhere else to give that evidence. Does the Minister not agree that that will put a lot of people off giving evidence?

Robert Jenrick

I hope that that is not borne out. It is worth remembering that we will not remove anyone to a country in which they would be endangered. We would be removing that person either back to their home country, if we consider it safe to do so, usually because the country is an ECAT signatory and has provisions in place, or to a safe third country such as Rwanda, where once again we will have put in place significant provisions to support the individual. I hope that that provides those individuals with the confidence to come forward and work with law enforcement to bring the traffickers to book.

Vicky Ford

I am particularly interested in the arrival of unaccompanied children in this country, because obviously the Minister has tightened up the eight-day period for them on exit. I believe that he just agreed with me that the standards for age-appropriate accommodation in detention centres need to be updated to look more like those for children’s homes. Is he prepared to concede that no unaccompanied child should be put in such a detention centre until that update of the rules has been undertaken?

Robert Jenrick

I understand the point that my right hon. Friend makes, but I am not sure that that is necessary, because the Detention Centre Rules 2001 are very explicit in the high standards expected. They set the overall standard, and underlying them will no doubt be further guidance and support for individuals who are working within the system. If there is work to be done on the latter point, we should do that and take account of her views and those of others who are expert in this field, but the Detention Centre Rules are very explicit in setting high overarching standards for this form of accommodation. That is exactly what we would seek to live up to; in fact, it would be unlawful if the Government did not.

Vicky Ford

In a children’s home, we would expect there to be the right to access a social worker and advocacy, and for the child to have the care that they particularly need. We would expect Ofsted to oversee that, not prison inspectors.

Robert Jenrick

I am grateful for those points. Social workers will clearly be at the heart of all this work, as they are today. Every setting in which young people are housed by the Home Office, whether it be an unaccompanied asylum-seeking children hotel, which we mentioned earlier, or another facility, has a strong contingent of qualified social workers who support those young people. I am certain that social workers will be at the heart of developing the policy and then, in time, operationalising it.

Their lordships have attempted but failed to smooth the rough edges of their wrecking amendments on legal proceedings, but we need be in no doubt that they are still wrecking amendments. They would tie every removal up in knots and never-ending legal proceedings. It is still the case that Lords amendment 1B would incorporate the various conventions listed in the amendment into our domestic law. An amendment shoehorned into the Bill is not the right place to make such a significant constitutional change. It is therefore right that we continue to reject it.

Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)

Will the Minister give way?

Robert Jenrick

I will not, because I need to close my remarks; this is a short debate.

Lords amendment 9B continues to undermine a core component of the Bill: that asylum and relevant human rights claims are declared inadmissible. The Lords amendment would simply encourage illegal migrants to game the system and drag things out for as long as possible, in the hope that they would become eligible for asylum here.

Lords amendment 23B brings us back to the issue of the removal of LGBT people to certain countries. The Government are a strong defender of LGBT rights across the globe. There is no question of sending a national of one of the countries listed in the amendment back to their home country if they fear persecution based on their sexuality. The Bill is equally clear that if an LGBT person were to be issued with a removal notice to a country where they fear persecution on such grounds, or indeed on any other grounds, they could make a serious harm suspensive claim and they would not be removed—

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)

Will the Minister give way?

Robert Jenrick

I will not, because I need to bring my remarks to a close now. They would not be removed until that claim and any appeal had been determined. As I said previously, the concerns underpinning the amendments are misplaced and the protections needed are already in the Bill.

On safe and legal routes, Lords amendment 102B brings us to the question of when new such routes come into operation. The amendment again seeks to enshrine a date in the Bill itself. I have now said at the Dispatch Box on two occasions that we aim to implement any proposed new routes as soon as is practical, and in any event by the end of 2024. I have made that commitment on behalf of the Government and, that being the case, there is simply no need for the amendment. We should not delay the enactment of this Bill over such a non-issue.

Lords amendment 103B, tabled by the Opposition, relates to the National Crime Agency. Again, it is a non-issue and the amendment is either performative or born out of ignorance and a lack of grasp of the detail. The NCA’s functions already cover tackling organised immigration crime, and men and women in that service work day in, day out to do just that. There is no need to change the statute underlying the organisation.

Finally, we have Lords amendment 107B, which was put forward by the Archbishop of Canterbury. This country’s proud record of providing a safe haven for more than half a million people since 2015 is the greatest evidence that we need that the UK is already taking a leading international role in tackling the refugee crisis. This Government are working tirelessly with international and domestic partners to tackle human trafficking, and continue to support overseas programmes. We will work with international partners and bring forward proposals for additional safe and legal routes where necessary.

However well-intentioned, this amendment remains unnecessary. As I said to his grace the Archbishop, if the Church wishes to play a further role in resettlement, it could join our community sponsorship scheme—an ongoing and global safe and legal route that, as far as I am aware, the Church of England is not currently engaged with.

This elected House voted to give the Bill a Second and Third Reading. Last Tuesday, it voted no fewer than 17 times in succession to reject the Lords amendments and an 18th time to endorse the Government’s amendments in lieu relating to the detention of unaccompanied children. It is time for the clear view of the elected House to prevail. I invite all right hon. and hon. Members to stand with the Government in upholding the will of the democratically elected Commons, to support the Government motions and to get on with securing our borders and stopping the boats.