The Attorney General must declare the Illegal Migration Bill “unlawful” if Rishi Sunak agrees to toughen up the controversial policy, MPs have heard.
Victoria Prentis, the Government’s top law officer, told the Commons she is “very pleased” the Bill cleared its committee stage in the Commons “without amendment” as she sidestepped calls to reveal her legal advice.
She added the UK Government will “take all steps” to defend its proposed immigration reforms from legal challenges.
The legislation aims to stop people claiming asylum in the UK if they arrive through unauthorised means, including by crossing the English Channel in small boats.
Ministers defused a Tory rebellion this week during the Bill’s committee stage by agreeing to hold talks on their concerns over the Easter recess.
Some Government amendments were made to the Bill when it was considered by MPs at committee stage, but Tory MPs did not push their proposals to a vote.
SNP MP Angela Crawley (Lanark and Hamilton East) said: “It is no secret that the Attorney General has reservations about the Illegal Migration Bill and it is also no secret that the far right of her party is intent on rebellion to push this Bill further into breaking international law.
“Will she do the honourable thing today and confirm that if the PM concedes on this, she will take a stand and declare the Bill unlawful?”
Ms Prentis replied: “I’m very pleased that the Illegal Migration Bill passed the committee stage of this House without amendment.”
For Labour, shadow solicitor general Andy Slaughter earlier questioned when Ms Prentis’s duty to the courts will “trump her loyalty to a law-breaking Government”.
Ms Prentis replied: “My first duty is to the court and to the rule of law. I have absolutely no hesitation restating that as often as (Mr Slaughter) wishes me too.”
The Bill could result in asylum seekers being detained without bail or judicial review for 28 days before being removed to their home country or a “safe third country” such as Rwanda.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman has conceded it is likely the Bill may be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) but the Government wishes to proceed with it.
Ms Prentis told MPs: “By convention, whether the law officers have been asked to provide advice … the contents of any such advice is not disclosed outside government.
“This protects our ability as legal advisers to give the Government full and frank legal advice.”
SNP MP Stuart McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) criticised the “awful” Bill and warned sections deny trafficking and slavery victims access to support.
He told Ms Prentis: “I too have a lot of respect for the Attorney General but she is going to lose support and respect if she continues to allow that Bill to proceed in blatant breach of the trafficking convention.”
Referring to Ms Braverman’s statement on the Bill casting doubt on ECHR compatibility, Ms Prentis said: “The use of the section 19(1)(b) statement in the case of this (Bill) does not itself mean the Bill breaches the ECHR.
“It just means that the Home Secretary cannot state the Bill is more likely than not compatible with convention rights and if legal challenges are made we will take all steps to defend our position in court.”
She later said such a statement is “unusual but not unprecedented and certainly not improper”.
Conservative MP Sir Bob Neill, chairman of the Justice Committee, said: “The testing of the legal position is not any kind of illegality or impropriety at all.”
Ms Prentis agreed “wholeheartedly”, adding: “I very much feel that it is perfectly proper for lawyers, and Government lawyers in this case, to test a new, a novel idea before the courts.
“In fact, that’s one of the reasons I very much enjoyed my career in the Government legal service, it’s something we frequently do as Government lawyers.”