Suella Braverman has admitted that new laws aiming to prevent small boat migrants from claiming asylum in the UK may break the Human Rights Act.
As Yvette Cooper attacked the Illegal Migration Bill as “government by gimmick”, the home secretary told MPs she would not address its “full legal complexities today”.
“Some of the nation’s finest legal minds have been – and continue to be – involved in its development,” Ms Braverman claimed, without giving details.
The former attorney general, who was a barrister before entering politics, said she was “confident that this bill is compatible with international obligations” but that she could not make a formal statement that the “robust and novel” plans comply with the Human Rights Act.
In a separate letter to MPs, Ms Braverman wrote : “This does not mean that the provisions in the bill are incompatible with the convention rights, only that there is a more 50 per cent chance that they may not be.”
Afghans are now the largest group of small boat migrants, but the home secretary omitted the latest Home Office figures from her statement, telling parliament: “All travelled through multiple safe countries in which they could and should have claimed asylum. Many came from safe countries, like Albania. Almost all passed through France.”
Labour MPs heckled and jeered Ms Braverman as she admitted the backlog of asylum claims had “ballooned” under the current government.The home secretary also admitted exiting laws were “not fit for purpose” – prompting one Labour MP to shout: “Whose fault is that?”
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, accused the government of worsening the “deeply damaging chaos” in the Channel with a failure to tackle people smuggling gangs, “collapsing” asylum decisions and falling family reunion visas.
“There is no point in ministers trying to blame anyone else for it, they have been in power for 13 years,” she added. “The asylum system is broken and they broke it.”
Ms Cooper accused the government of repeating pledges that “didn’t work” in last year’s Nationality and Borders Act, adding: “It didn’t deter anyone, even more boats arrived. What is different this time? They still don’t have any return agreements in place … this bill isn’t a solution, it’s a con that risks making the situation worse.”
The new law seeks to detain and deport asylum seekers who the government deems “inadmissible” because they travelled through safe third countries on their way to the UK – a designation capturing almost all those arriving on small boats from France.
Ms Braverman said it will place a duty on the home secretary to remove “illegal entrants” to Rwanda or a “safe third country”.
But the Rwanda scheme has not started because of legal challenges and Albania is the only other nation to agree to the return of asylum seekers, with an EU-wide mechanism lost in Brexit.
The UK’s immigration detention estate is not big enough to hold a significant portion of small boat migrants ahead of deportation, and crossing the Channel to claim asylum was only made illegal on 28 June 2022.
Ms Braverman did not answer repeated questions from MPs on the lack of deportation agreements and immigration detention places, telling parliament: “They will not stop coming here until the world knows that if you enter Britain illegally, you will be detained and swiftly removed.
“Removed back to your home country if it’s safe, or to a safe third country like Rwanda. That is precisely what this bill will do. That is how we will stop the boats.”
Over 3,000 people have crossed the Channel so far this year – double the 1,500 seen by the same point in 2022, which was itself a record year.
Refugee charities and experts have repeatedly called for the government to set up alternative routes that remove the demand for English Channel crossings rather than pursuing increasingly punitive “deterrents” that have so far had little effect.
The home secretary did not commit to any new safe and legal routes on Tuesday, telling parliament that the government would introduce “an annual cap on the number of refugees the UK will resettle”.
Opposition MPs accused the government of abandoning Afghans who did not manage to board evacuation flights out of Kabul in August 2021, with Ms Cooper saying those who made their own way to the UK “will only ever be illegal in the eyes of a government who relied on the sacrifice they made”.
Conservative grandee David Davis told The Independent on Monday that the law may not succeed in its aims, adding: “Leaving aside any moral concerns, it’s got a lot of real practical problems. If we’re got to lock these people up, then where do they go?”
The former cabinet minister is among numerous senior Tories who are concerned that the bill will be illegal, unworkable or will not take effect by the next general election.
Rishi Sunak has made “stopping the boats” one of his five priorities and has come under mounting pressure from Conservative MPs to take actions as numbers continue to soar.