UK government legislation aimed at deterring asylum seekers from crossing the Channel is “isolationist” and has elements that are “morally unacceptable and politically impractical”, the most senior cleric in the Church of England has warned.
Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, made the comments on Wednesday as the House of Lords, parliament’s upper house, began debating the illegal migration bill.
If it becomes law, the bill will bar almost anyone entering Britain on small boats or without prior permission from claiming asylum. It will also impose a “legal duty” on the home secretary to detain and remove such people either to their country of origin or to a “safe” third country.
The legislation last month passed its latest hurdle in the House of Commons, but groups including the UN refugee agency and Europe’s top human rights body have said it breaches the UK’s obligations under international law.
Welby, one of 26 Anglican bishops in the Lords, told peers the bill was “an attempt at a short-term fix”. He said it risked “great damage to the UK’s interests and reputation at home and abroad, let alone the interests of those in need of protection”.
“It is isolationist,” he added. “It is morally unacceptable and politically impractical to let the poorest countries deal with the crisis alone, and cut our international aid.”
Welby also indicated that he would propose amendments to the legislation at its next parliamentary stage. Although he has put forward changes to two previous bills during his time as archbishop, Welby has never intervened on such a contentious piece of legislation.
Immigration minister Robert Jenrick criticised Welby’s stance, telling the BBC there was “nothing moral” about allowing the “pernicious trade” of people smugglers to continue.
“By bringing forward this proposal, we make it clear that if you come across illegally on a small boat you will not find a route to life in the UK,” he said. “That will have a serious deterrent effect.”
Welby said that although the bill displayed “none of” the UK’s reputation for “measured language, calm decision and careful legislation”, he would not support a “fatal amendment” by the Liberal Democrat Lord Brian Paddick to scrap it entirely.
Labour has also refused to back that amendment, saying that if it passed, rules around the Lords’ power would allow ministers to push through a new bill with limited input from the upper house.
Lord Vernon Coaker, a Labour peer, also fiercely criticised the legislation, saying the new measures in the bill would have been “unthinkable” a few years ago.
However, Lord Simon Murray, a junior government minister, said it was vital to “stop the boats” — a reference to the record 45,000 people who made clandestine crossings to the UK last year.
“The bill . . . is a necessary, urgent and indeed compassionate response to the daily challenge posed to the integrity of our immigration system,” he said.
The only vote on Wednesday was on Paddick’s fatal amendment, which was defeated by 179 votes to 76.
Critics are expected to focus on the bill’s report stage, when peers are likely to try to force through changes including curbs on the removal of child migrants from the UK. They are also likely to push for the expansion of safe and legal routes for migrants fleeing persecution or danger to reach the UK.