Rishi Sunak warned of Tory small boats revolt over ‘caging of children’

Rishi Sunak warned of Tory small boats revolt over ‘caging of children’

Rishi Sunak has been warned by Conservative MPs that his small boats crackdown bill won’t pass through parliament unless the PM waters down his detention and deportation plan.

The Independent understands that Tory moderates are discussing how best to amend the bill at the next stage – focusing on creating stronger protections on child detention and modern slavery.

However, right-wing Tory MPs are also understood to be drawing up plans to further toughen the bill with an amendment to pull the UK out of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).

It comes as senior backbencher Caroline Nokes launched a fresh attack on the government’s asylum legislation – likening it to Donald Trump’s “caging of children”.

Ms Nokes said the bill would give home secretary Suella Braverman the power to “lock up pregnant women, to incarcerate children with their families” if they arrive via the English Channel.

She told TalkTV: “Did we not learn from Donald Trump and his caging of children that this is a horrendous thing to do – to incarcerate children?”

Ms Nokes said she shared the concerns that the Illegal Migration Bill would hand Ms Braverman the power to deport unaccompanied children, a possibility downplayed by the government.

Former Tory justice secretary Robert Buckland said on Tuesday that Tory MPs who shared Ms Nokes concerns about child detention would rebel unless changes were made to the plan.

Although the bill passed its second reading by 312 votes to 250 on Monday night – with the majority of Tory MPs backing it – Mr Buckland made clear there was great unease. He said the government “risks looking guilty of ineffective authoritarianism”.

The ex-cabinet minister told Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think a lot of us who decided to allow the principle of the bill to go forward yesterday were doing so upon the basis that this bill will need further work.”

“The issue relating to particularly women and children needs to be directly addressed,” Mr Buckland added. “I do not support the detention of unaccompanied children or indeed the splitting up of families; that was a government policy that has been followed since 2010.”

Former Tory prime minister Theresa May joined the backlash against the bill on Monday night – warning that modern slavery victims will be “collateral damage”.

Raising her concerns about genuine trafficking victims, she added: “As it currently stands, we are shutting the door to victims who are being trafficked into slavery into the UK.”

Theresa May says small boats bill ‘shuts door’ to genuine victims

Several senior Tories have indicated they would not support the bill in its current form – including Ms Nokes, Mr Buckland, net zero adviser Chris Skidmore, Northern Ireland select committee chair Simon Hoare and defence select committee chair Tobias Ellwood.

Mr Ellwood told The Independent that MPs would want to amend the bill “so our international obligations on prevention of child detention are met”, adding: “Without these changes, I suspect the bill will not pass through parliament.”

Moderates believe that dozens of MP will support greater protections for children and trafficking victims.

However, The Independent understands right-wing Tory MPs are considering their own amendment to pull the UK out of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).

A group of people arriving on small boats brought in to Dover, Kent

(PA Archive)

The hardliners are pushing the government to avoid the small boats asylum ban getting bogged down in the courts, and believe they have as many as 40 MPs ready to back the radical move.

The Tory chief whip’s office is understood to be trying to persuade the right-wingers to hold off from amendments and give the legislation a chance to work. Mr Buckland warned against any effort to use the small boats bill as a “battering ram” against the ECHR.

The Liberal Democrats said they will table their own amendment to ban child detention, having helped ended the previous practice of detaining under 18s for immigration purposes as part of the coalition government.

“If Conservative MPs are serious about opposing these plans, they should back our attempts to prevent the locking up of innocent children fleeing war and violence,” said the party’s home affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael MP.

Asked if Mr Sunak was in “listening mode” on amendments, his official spokesman said: “The prime minister has set out why he thinks this bill is important and necessary in order to stop the boats.”

The row comes as a former Home Office adviser Nimco Ali condemned the planned crackdown on migrants arriving by as “heartless” and “racist”.

“As a former refugee of colour, if we can provide generous help to Ukrainians escaping war then I think we need to look at ensuring that we also provide routes to anyone escaping conflicts,” she told The Guardian.

Ms Ali added: “If we can find room for a white child but not a black child, who are coming here in similar circumstances, it is racist. It is really painful if we believe that people can seek refuge if they come from Europe but not elsewhere.”

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