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Welby locks horns with Government over ‘morally unacceptable' small boats law

Justin Welby (Jonathan Brady/PA)
Nick Lester, Abbie Llewelyn and David Lynch, PA Political Staff

The Archbishop of Canterbury has gone head-to-head with the Government after condemning its plans to tackle the small boats crisis as “morally unacceptable and politically impractical”.

But the intervention by the Most Rev Justin Welby sparked criticism of the church leader at Westminster, who was told neither “handwringing or bell ringing” will solve the misery of the channel crossings.

Ministers have also said the top cleric was “wrong”.

The exchanges came during a lengthy, impassioned debate lasting more than 10 hours on the Illegal Migration Bill in the House of Lords.

The flagship legislation cleared its first parliamentary hurdle in the unelected chamber after a Liberal Democrat bid to block it was rejected by 179 votes to 76, majority 103.

But the immigration reforms, which have already been passed by the Commons, is set for a rocky ride through the Lords, where it faced a barrage of criticism.

The proposed law change aims to ensure those who arrive in the UK without permission will be detained and promptly removed, either to their home country or a third country such as Rwanda.

It also includes provisions that would limit the ability of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to prevent the deportation of asylum seekers.

Critics argue the draft legislation breaks international law and threatens modern slavery protections.

London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard 40th anniversary gala – London
Lord Paddick (Ian West/PA)

In a withering attack at second reading, Mr Welby said: “This Bill fails to take a long term and strategic view of the challenges of migration and undermines international co-operation rather than taking an opportunity for the UK to show leadership.”

Mr Welby added: “It is isolationist, it is morally unacceptable and politically impractical to let the poorest countries deal with the crisis alone and cut our international aid.

“This Bill is an attempt at a short-term fix.

“It risks great damage to the UK’s interests and reputation at home and abroad, let alone the interests of those in need of protection or the nations who together face this challenge.

“Our interests as a nation are closely linked to our reputation for justice and the rule of law and to our measured language, calm decision and careful legislation.

“None of those are seen here. This nation should lead internationally, not stand apart.”

But rejecting the Archbishop’s criticism, House Of Cards author Lord Dobbs stressed the need to tackle the people smugglers.

The Tory peer and former adviser to the Thatcher government said: “It is our moral obligation to stop them, to bring an end to the unimaginable pain of mothers and fathers watching their children drowning off our shores in the channel. No amount of handwringing or bell ringing is going to do that.”

Conservative former Cabinet minister Lord Forsyth of Drumlean also took a sideswipe at Mr Welby’s intervention, telling him: “I am in strong agreement where he is concerned with issues spiritual, rather than temporal.”

Tory peer and former MP Lord Jackson of Peterborough said: “As an Anglican, I find dispiriting that the leaders of my own church, who were silent over the impact of 20 years of uncontrolled immigration should seek to mischaracterise those of us who have the courage to support these bold measures as morally deficient – that is not the case.”

Former Brexit chief negotiator and minister Lord Frost said: “We are told by some that to enshrine these principles in a Bill is in some way shameful, inhuman, immoral or even evil. I disagree with that and I actually rather resent it. I can’t agree that we are not living up to our moral responsibility.”

In response, Mr Welby pretended to slap his own wrists.

In summing up, Home Office minister Lord Murray of Blidworth said: “The Archbishop of Canterbury and other members were right to place the Bill in its moral context. Proceeding with this Bill is the moral course.

“We must put a stop to the dangerous channel crossings, putting lives at risk and splitting families.

“We must end the callous exploitation of vulnerable people by the people smugglers and we must uphold the law and ensure fair play for those who abide by our immigration rules.”

Responding to the the cleric’s remarks outside the chamber, immigration minister Robert Jenrick told the BBC: “There’s nothing moral about allowing the pernicious trade of people smugglers to continue… I disagree with him respectfully.”

Earlier in Parliament, Liberal Democrat and former senior police officer Lord Paddick told peers the legislation was “a low point in the history of this Government”.

He said: “This Bill seeks to systematically deny human rights to a group of people desperately seeking sanctuary.”

Labour frontbencher Lord Coaker said: “In response to a broken system that is failing, we have a Government playing fast and loose with our place in the world and our respect for international law. This must change.”