Labour must hammer home to voters the cruelty of the illegal migration bill

Katie Neame
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The government’s illegal migration bill has passed its second reading in the Commons by 312 votes to 250. The legislation – described as “desperately cruel” by human rights organisation Liberty – would see anyone arriving in the UK on a small boat have their asylum claim deemed “inadmissible”, with arrivals detained and then “promptly removed”, either to their home country or a “safe third country”. Home Secretary Suella Braverman argued during last night’s debate that, “by ensuring… that people do not remain here, we are removing their incentive to make the journey in the first place”. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper condemned the legislation as a “traffickers’ charter”, declaring that the Tories “know this bill won’t work to stop boat crossings or to stop the gangs” and that it will “make the chaos worse”. Chief executive of the Refugee Council Enver Solomon also rejected the government’s claim that the bill will stop the crossings, arguing it will instead “leave traumatised people locked up in a state of misery being treated as criminals and suspected terrorists without a fair hearing on our soil”.

While unironically telling fellow MPs that they should “choose their words carefully”, Braverman hit out at the “out-of-touch lefties” who have criticised the government’s bill and “naive do-gooders” on the Labour benches. But the backlash against the legislation has not been limited to voices on the left. Tory MP and former immigration minister Caroline Nokes expressed her “absolute horror” at the bill ahead of the second reading, while Nimco Ali – who until December was an adviser to the government on violence against women – said Braverman’s approach makes the government look “cruel and heartless” and argued that the Home Secretary is “the wrong person not just for the Conservative Party but for the country”. And former Tory Prime Minister Theresa May declared during yesterday’s debate that “anybody who thinks that this bill will deal with the issue of illegal migration once and for all is wrong”.

Cooper argued that ministers “don’t care” that the bill will not work because the policy is about “political gains”. The Labour frontbencher told MPs: “This is is about a lame Prime Minister making promises that he has no intention of keeping. All he wants is a dividing line. All he wants is to pick a fight. All he wants is someone else to blame, and he doesn’t care if our international reputation or some very vulnerable people pay the price.” Rishi Sunak made passing new laws to stop small boats crossing the Channel one of his five “people’s priorities” in his new year speech, showing that the government thinks talking tough on immigration will be a vote winner. And Braverman gave a further indication during yesterday’s debate of how far public opinion is shaping Tory policy in this area, claiming that, according to opinion polls, the British people “back” the bill and declaring that this is a government who “listen to the people”.

Polling by Ipsos, published following the announcement of the bill last week, found that trust in the Tories on immigration and asylum issues has improved since February, though it remains low. According to its research, 35% of respondents trust the Conservatives to “have the right policies towards asylum seekers”, level pegging with Labour and up seven percentage points on the previous month. There has been a particular surge among 2019 Tory voters, with 59% saying they trusted the Tories on this issue, up from 38% in February. An interesting finding from the polling is that 40% of respondents said they trust the Conservatives to “make it harder to enter the country illegally” – up ten percentage points on last month – while 31% said the same about Labour. The framing of the bill as countering “illegal” migration will be a key way in which the government conceals the cruelest aspects of this legislation. Labour and others opposing the bill must hammer home to voters its wider implications, as Cooper did in her speech to MPs last night, declaring that the legislation “will lock up children, remove support and safe refuges from women who have been trafficked and deny citizenship to people like Mo Farah“.

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