Children who arrive in the UK on small boats will be detained in immigration centres under Rishi Sunak’s plan to tackle the crisis, it has emerged – sparking a backlash among senior Conservatives.
Campaigners, MPs and have pointed out that the bill allows the detention of families with children, reversing a ban introduced by the David Cameron-led coalition government a decade ago.
The Refugee Council and other experts fear the legislation could allow the deportation of unaccompanied children if returning them to their country of origin is deemed safe – an idea denied by government.
Former Tory justice secretary Robert Buckland told The Independent: “The idea of reversing the end of child detention is concerning. We’re risking doing something quite draconian and damaging our reputation for little gain. We shouldn’t be locking children up – it’s not right.”
Mr Buckland, who has said the plan may not work without a returns agreement with France and other EU countries, said he would support the bill at second reading stage in the Commons on Monday – but warned of a Tory rebellion ahead with major changes.
“We have to get reassurance on the deportation of children. It needs to be addressed. The idea it’s going to sail through parliament without the policy on children being amended is for the birds,” said the ex-cabinet minister.
Senior Tory Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defence select committee, told The Independent that MPs would want to amend the bill “so our children so our international obligations on prevention of child detention are met”, adding: “Without these changes I suspect the bill will not pass through parliament.”
One former Tory minister told The Independent the plan to allow child detention was “sickening”. They fear it will give immigration officers would have the power to restrain minors, as well as opening up the possibility of their removal on deportation flights.
Tory peer Nicky Morgan said she hoped ministers would “clarify with urgency what the new proposals mean for children seeking refuge from some terrible situations”.
Frustration with the bill is not limited to so-called “one nation” moderates in the party. Former home secretary Priti Patel also has concerns about the bill and is considering whether to speak out, The Independent understands.
Amid the growing backlash, Labour peer Lord Dubs said that he and others would try to amend the bill in the Lords to prevent the return of child detention in the UK, describing the bill as “shocking”.
Lib Dem leader Ed Davey said he was “proud” this party helped put an end to the detention of children, adding the ministers should be “focused on stopping the traffickers from exploiting vulnerable people, not punishing innocent children”.
It comes as a coalition of more than 350 charities, businesses and unions condemned home secretary Suella Braverman’s Illegal Migration Bill, as the Archbishop of York said it “amounts to cruelty without purpose”.
A letter signed by the groups – including Unison, Friends of the Earth and Save the Children – said the legislation “proposes we lock up families, children and other refugees simply for asking for protection [and] fundamentally undermines this principle and makes a mockery of our international commitments”.
The Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell also expressed his outrage over plans to detain those arriving on small boats for up to 28 days before deporting them, banning such arrivals from making an asylum claim.
The senior Church of England cleric told The Observer the plan amounts to “cruelty without purpose” and was “immoral and inept”.
Jeremy Hunt did not rule out the prospect of children being detained under the government’s plans to address asylum seekers arriving in small boats when asked about it BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg.
The chancellor said “special arrangements” would be made for children but would not be drawn on whether the government will entirely overturn arrangements which seek to prevent children being detained.
The former Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, told The Independent that the plan will see thousands of modern slavery victims “abandoned” as the gangs abusing them go free.
“It shows no understanding of the horror of human trafficking and abandons extremely vulnerable victims of serious crime,” said Dame Sara Thornton.
An exclusive Savanta ComRes poll for The Independent showed 42 per cent of voters support the government’s controversial plan to deport those coming to the UK illegally, while only 25 per cent oppose the plan.
However, while polling showed overall support for the plan, 52 per cent of people said they thought it would make no difference to the number of people arriving in the UK via small boats.
The government denied unaccompanied children would be routinely deported, saying they will only be removed in “very limited circumstances ahead of them reaching adulthood”.
A Home Office spokesman said: “The Illegal Migration Bill will change the law so that people who come to the UK illegally can be detained and then swiftly returned to a safe third country or their home country.
“Unaccompanied children will only be removed in very limited circumstances ahead of them reaching adulthood and then only to a safe country, such as for the purposes of family reunion or to their country of origin. All decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis.”