Rishi Sunak denies small boats bill will break human rights laws

As the prime minister presses on with his plans to curb migrant arrivals to the UK, a number of hurdles remain to be cleared

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has defended his controversial new plan to stop migrants crossing the English Channel illegally after the home secretary admitted it could breach human rights laws.

The prime minister insisted his plan to force detention on virtually everyone who enters the UK illegally and make it impossible for most of them to claim asylum will stay within international law and cut illegal migration.

"We believe that it is lawful, that we are acting in compliance with our international obligations," he told a Downing Street press conference, adding that he's "up for the fight" if the law is challenged in the courts.

Watch Prime Minister Rishi Sunak take questions on his 'stop the boats' plan

He added that his law will stay within the European Convention on Human Rights but if challenged "we will fight that hard because we believe we’re doing the right thing and it is compliant with our obligations".

Mr Sunak said: “Of course we’re up for the fight, I wouldn’t be standing here if we weren’t.

“But we’re confident that we’ll win.”

It came after Home Secretary Suella Braverman admitted the law could be in breach of human rights laws when setting out the Illegal Immigration Bill to MPs.

“Our approach is robust and novel, which is why we can’t make a definitive statement of compatibility under section 19 1b of the Human Rights Act," she said in the Commons.

What she means by making this statement is that she cannot be certain the law will comply with the ECHR.

The first page of the Bill also points out it may not stay within human rights laws.

On it, Ms Braverman wrote: "I am unable to make a statement that, in my view, the provisions of the Illegal Migration Bill are compatible with the Convention rights, but the government nevertheless wishes the House to proceed with the Bill."

But, she told MPs “of course the UK will always seek to uphold international law and I am confident that this Bill is compatible with international obligations”.

Earlier, she wrote in the Telegraph she and the PM "have been working tirelessly to ensure we have a Bill that works – we’ve pushed the boundaries of international law to solve this crisis".

She was met with laughter in the Commons when she said she would not "address the Bill's full legal complexities today".

But the minister said it would “betray” British voters not to tackle the “waves of illegal migrants breaching our border”.

Mr Sunak argued that his new Bill, which is key to one of the five priorities for his premiership, will “take back ­control of our borders, once and for all”.

Watch in full: Suella Braverman tells MPs about her plan to 'stop the boats'

And Downing Street said he believes it can be implemented without needing to withdraw from the ECHR.

The PM's spokesman told reporters: “We have said previously – and it still remains the case – that we believe we can bring in tough new legislation that remains within ECHR.”

Vicky Tennant, from the UN's refugee agency the UNCHR, says the Bill is in breach of the Refugee Convention

However in an apparent contradiction, Ms Braverman wrote to all MPs about the legislation, telling them it is more likely not compatible with the ECHR.

The home secretary wrote that she has made a statement under provisions of the Human Rights Act because her plans are “robust and novel”.

“This does not mean that the provisions in the Bill are incompatible with the convention rights, only that there is a more 50% chance that they may not be,” she wrote.

“We are testing the limits but remain confident that this Bill is compatible with international law.”

And critics have warned the proposals are “unworkable” and will leave thousands of migrants in limbo by banning them from ever claiming British citizenship again.

Watch the home secretary set out the main points of her Bill as she avoids discussing its legal complexities

Vicky Tennant from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said the organisation is "profoundly concerned" about the Bill.

"It’s essentially a ban on asylum, it basically extinguishes the right to seek asylum in the UK for people arriving irregularly and that’s a clear breach of the refugee convention," she told ITV News.

Labour’s Yvette Cooper accused the home secretary of presiding over "chaos".

She told the Commons: “They could be setting out a serious plan today – and we would work with them, and so would everyone across the country.

“Instead, it’s just more chaos. They say no ifs, no buts, but all of us know she’s going to spend the whole of the next year iffing and butting, and looking for someone else to blame when it all goes wrong.

“Enough is enough. We cannot afford any more of this slogans and not solutions, just government by gimmick, ramping up the rhetoric on refugees, picking fights simply so they have someone else to blame when things go wrong.”

Mr Sunak spoke to Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame before unveiling his plans, and pledged to continue working with him to ensure their stalled project works.

The government has paid more than £140 million to Rwanda but no flights forcibly carrying migrants to the capital of Kigali have taken off because of legal challenges.

What are the main points of the plan?

  • There will be a duty placed on the home secretary to detain anyone who arrives in the UK illegally, except the seriously ill and children

  • It will no longer be possible for people who enter the UK illegally to claim asylum

  • Anyone who crosses the English Channel to enter Great Britain will be deported, either to a safe third country, Rwanda - with which the government has signed an asylum deal - or back to their home nation if it is not dangerous. Only those too ill to fly, people under 18 or migrants at serious risk of irreversible harm if they are deported will avoid relocation

  • Those who do enter illegally will be banned from ever returning

The prime minister will meet France’s President Emmanuel Macron on Friday to discuss further cooperation that will be required to reduce boat crossings.

Mr Sunak admitted voters “have heard promises before” without seeing results, but insisted his legislation “will mean that those who come here on small boats can’t claim asylum here”.

He wrote in the Sun: “This new law will send a clear signal that if you come to this country illegally, you will be swiftly removed.”

The PM said it was a plan “to do what’s fair for those at home and those who have a legitimate claim to asylum - a plan to take back control of our borders once and for all”.

The Immigration Services Union representing border staff said the plans are “quite confusing” and do not seem “possible” without the Rwanda policy functioning.

The prime minister has made “stopping the boats” one of his five priorities and has been under pressure to tackle the issue amid dire polling figures for the Tories.

Suella Braverman on what Rishi Sunak's pledge to 'stop the boats' means in practice

Almost 3,000 migrants have made unauthorised crossings of the English Channel already this year and more than 45,000 succeeded in reaching the UK last year - breaking the record for yearly small boat crossings.

Refugee Council chief executive Enver Solomon said the plans “shatter the UK’s long-standing commitment under the UN Convention to give people a fair hearing regardless of the path they have taken to reach our shores”.

“The government’s flawed legislation will not stop the boats but result in tens of thousands locked up in detention at huge cost, permanently in limbo and being treated as criminals simply for seeking refuge,” he added.

“It’s unworkable, costly and won’t stop the boats.”

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