Westminster update: MPs clash over Illegal Migration Bill

Your weekly update from the Law Society’s public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.
The palace of Westminster in the evening.
Photograph: Thomas Riebesehl

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In April 2013, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) cut large areas from legal aid, meaning fewer people can access legal advice.

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What you need to know

1. MPs clash over Illegal Migration Bill

MPs took to the Commons chamber on Monday 27 March and Tuesday 28 March in a heated debate about the Illegal Migration Bill.

The bill is universally opposed by all opposition parties, and has caused disquiet among several on the government benches.

Many MPs warned that the bill is incompatible with the UK’s obligations under international law.

Stuart McDonald (SNP) stated that it is “extraordinary” that the UK’s commitment to international human rights protections, the ECHR and the refugee convention is even being debated.

McDonald said that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has previously said that the bill breaches the refugee convention, and now that the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights has written to warn MPs that it is “essential that Members of Parliament…prevent legislation that is incompatible with the UK’s international obligations being passed.”

Former Conservative prime minister Theresa May also said that “there are genuine questions of incompatibility with article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights…. On action against trafficking in human beings.”

Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Joanna Cherry (SNP) said that the bill “breaches our international obligations under the ECHR, breaches our obligations under the refugee convention and breaches our obligations under the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking. That is to mention just three, but there is also the international convention on the rights of the child, and I could go on and on.”

Concerns on the bill’s impact on access to justice were also raised, particularly with regards to modern slavery and human trafficking victims.

Theresa May said that she fears the Illegal Migration Bill “will drive a coach and horses through the Modern Slavery Act, denying support to those who have been exploited and enslaved and, in doing so, making it much harder to catch and stop the traffickers and slave drivers.”

DUP MP Jim Shannon said that “The bill will have an unintended, but nevertheless devastating, impact on victims of modern slavery… We cannot close the door on genuine victims of trafficking and slavery, and we cannot allow the bill to undermine the security of victims.”

2. Court reform: MPs raise Law Society concerns

On Thursday 30 March, MPs described written evidence from the Law Society as a “pretty serious inditement” of the Common Platform, during a session of the Public Accounts Committee. 

MPs highlighted our reports from members about missing case files, difficulty accessing case papers and other technical issues during a session questioning Ministry of Justice officials on court reform and the rollout of Common Platform.

Committee chair Meg Hillier said there were concerns about access to justice during the court reform programme, quoting our view that it can provide “access to process” instead.

Ministry of Justice permanent secretary Antonia Romeo said that her focus was on the experience of victims and other users in accessing justice, rather than practitioners, though their views were still important.

Turning to the wider courts backlog, Romeo confirmed the Ministry of Justice is still targeting reducing the Crown Court backlog to 53,000 cases by the end of this Parliament.

She said they were throwing everything at it, including extending leases on Nightingale Courts and keep sitting days uncapped.

Nick Goodwin, CEO of HMCTS, said they were running the courts at as close to capacity as possible and were aiming to recruit more judges, the main barrier to hearing more cases.

The PAC session follows the publication of a National Audit Office report, which criticised the rapid implementation of the court reform programme.

3. MPs question justice ministers

MPs questioned justice ministers on legal aid, the Illegal Migration Bill and the Bill of Rights during Justice Questions. 

Shadow Legal Aid Minister Afzal Khan argued the legal aid system is “running on empty”, while 80% of the country does not have access to a welfare legal aid provider in their local authority. He called on the government to implement the Bellamy Review’s recommendations in full.

Justice Minister Mike Freer pointed to the £2bn a year in funding for legal aid.

Turning to the Illegal Migration Bill, Stuart C McDonald (SNP) asked how people detained by the Bill would be able to access legal advice.

Freer felt this was a technical issue and asked to be written to on it.

On the Bill of Rights, Alan Brown (SNP) noted the JCHR had found the UK already had tight restrictions on article 8 rights in deportation cases and these did not need to be increased. However, the Lord Chancellor disagreed and said his Bill of Rights “would cure” this issue.

Finally, Shadow Solicitor General Andy Slaughter asked whether the Minister felt on the tenth anniversary of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill if it had been a good thing for access to justice.

Freer did not comment but said the government was spending £813m on civil legal aid each year.

4. Minister plans to house asylum seekers on disused military sites

On Wednesday 29 March, immigration minister Robert Jenrick MP delivered a statement to the House of Commons about illegal migration, stating that arrivals will now be housed in disused military sites – repurposed barrack blocks and portacabins.

He said that the sheer number of small boat arrivals has overwhelmed the UK asylum system and that extra measures in addition to the Illegal Migration Bill are needed to tackle this issue.

He said that the government are committed to meeting its legal obligations to those who would otherwise be destitute, “but we are not prepared to go further.”

He said that accommodation for migrants should “meet their essential living needs and nothing more”, as he feared the UK is becoming a magnet for displaced people seeking better economic prospects.

He therefore announced that the government will start housing those people who land in the UK in disused military sites, in repurposed barrack blocks and portacabins.

He said that basic healthcare will be available, there will be on site security and funding will be provided to local authorities in which these sites are located.

The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, called the statement “an admission of failure.” She said that the sites will not end hotel use, and that they will be in addition to this, adding to rising asylum system costs.

Cooper said that a report from the government’s own independent watchdog states that there is no cost control in the Home Office, and that their contracts are highly inefficient, with very little government transparency and oversight.

Labour MP, Ruth Cadbury added that a large proportion of taxpayers’ funding is not even going to the hotels of the food providers but is going “into the pockets of a network of often dodgy contractors and subcontractors.” She asked what is being done to address the mismanagement of government funds.

Conservative MP, Sir Edward Leigh said that the plan to use a base in Lincolnshire is “not based on good governance, but on the politics of trying to do something.” He said that the use of the site would affect the economy of the local area and the safety of its residents.

Jenrick said that there would be a significant package of support for constituents affected by the new migrant housing.

Priti Patel, former home secretary, similarly questioned the rationale for having such accommodation in a rural village in Essex, where there is no infrastructure or amenities.

Coming up:

Once parliamentarians return from the Easter Recess, the Law Society will be working closely with MPs and peers to influence a number of bills and inquiries:

If you made it this far...

We welcome The Bar Council of India's historic decision to allow foreign lawyers and foreign law firms to practice in India.

England and Wales is already open to Indian lawyers and Indian law firms, and we're committed to keeping it that way.

Hear from our president, Lubna Shuja after her recent trip to India. 

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