Clause 41 - Maritime Enforcement

Nationality and Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:45 pm on 28th October 2021.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendment 82.

Amendment 144, in schedule 5, page 74, line 30, at end insert—

“provided that the relevant officer may not do any of the things mentioned in sub-paragraph (2) where they would risk the welfare or safety of persons on board the ship.”

This amendment would require officers to assess welfare risk before stopping or boarding a ship, requiring it to be taken elsewhere or requiring it to leave UK waters, and not act if doing so would exacerbate these risks.

Government amendment 83.

Amendment 145, in schedule 5, page 75, line 8, at end insert—

“(7A) The Secretary of State must publish a list of States and relevant territories with which agreement has been reached for the purposes of sub-paragraph (7) within 30 days of the date of Royal Assent to this Act, and the Secretary of State must update that published list from time to time.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to publish which states or territories she has agreed arrangements with for returning or removing asylum seekers to, within 30 days of Royal Assent.

Amendment 146, in schedule 5, page 76, line 24, at end insert—

“(9) A relevant officer may only exercise powers under this paragraph if they have passed relevant training, including training on the requirement to exercise powers under this paragraph in accordance with the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998.”

This amendment would require the relevant officer to have passed relevant training before acting under these powers, and only acts with regards to the Human Rights Act.

Amendment 148, in schedule 5, page 77, line 18, at end insert—

“(7) A relevant officer may only exercise powers under this paragraph if they have passed relevant training, including training on the requirement to exercise powers under this paragraph in accordance with the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998.”

This amendment would require the relevant officer to have passed relevant training before acting under these powers, and only acts with regards to the Human Rights Act.

Amendment 147, in schedule 5, page 78, line 12, at end insert—

“(10) A relevant officer may only exercise powers under this paragraph if they have passed relevant training, including training on the requirement to exercise powers under this paragraph in accordance with the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998.”

This amendment would require the relevant officer to have passed relevant training before acting under these powers, and only acts with regards to the Human Rights Act.

Amendment 149, in schedule 5, page 78, line 32, at end insert—

“(c) the act was carried out in accordance with the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998.”

This amendment would require the relevant officer to only act with regards to the Human Rights Act.

That schedule 5 be the Fifth schedule to the Bill.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

In response to numbers of migrants using dangerous maritime routes to enter the UK illegally, this Government are committed to providing Border Force with the tools and legislation they need to combat this illegal migration threat more effectively. We need to strengthen and broaden our current powers not only to improve the effectiveness and capability of Border Force’s current maritime interception tactics, but to better equip them for future operational developments, which may be enhanced through agreements with our near border partners.

The clause and schedule will also provide new powers allowing Border Force to return vessels and those on board, when appropriate, to non-UK locations. Finally, the Government will use this clause to provide bespoke seizure and disposal powers intended for Border Force use against the small boats threat specifically. It will provide far more flexible options for the seizure and disposal of the vast majority of unflagged, ownerless vessels that are being used to transport illegal migrants.

I turn to Government amendments 82 and 83. We are seeing an unacceptable rise in dangerous and unnecessary small boat crossings. Our primary focus is on preventing people from embarking on dangerous channel crossings to enter the UK illegally, tackling the criminal gangs responsible and protecting lives. We must send a powerful message that people should not leave the safety of countries such as France or Belgium to enter the UK illegally in an unseaworthy boat, and if they do, they could be taken back.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

On the question of legality, Government amendment 82 is pretty extraordinary, because it seems to remove a restriction on the power of the Secretary of State so that she is unconstrained by the United Nations convention on the law of the sea; I am just looking at the explanatory note. Is that amendment designed to allow the Secretary of State to break the international law of the sea?

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, and I will come on to it imminently. To finish the point I was making, the Government amendments will remove text from the Bill that is now considered not to be essential to achieving the aim that I have set out.

The UK has ratified, and is therefore fully committed to upholding, the United Nations convention on the law of the sea. The Government are committed to utilising their maritime enforcement tactics in full compliance with international law. The re-statement of that in the clause is therefore unnecessary. It is also unnecessary to state in legislation, where it is already beyond doubt, that Border Force would seek permission from a foreign country before taking a migrant boat back to that country. That statement adds nothing to the powers being created in this part of the Bill.

We want to make it explicit that operating these maritime enforcement powers in UK waters or international waters to simply divert a migrant vessel from UK territorial seas does not require the permission of a foreign state where that vessel may then enter their waters. These amendments will not result in the UK failing to abide by its international obligations, whether that be in the context of the safety of lives at sea or when seeking permission if intending to return migrants to another country, such as France.

I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield Central for what he will no doubt say about amendments 144 to 149. I will start by addressing amendment 144, which proposes to add an additional requirement to the maritime powers where the options available to officers intercepting a vessel at sea are spelled out. In order for the tactics intended for use in the exercise of these powers to be safe and legal, officers will have to carry out risk assessments before and during any exercise of the powers. That requirement will be laid out in operating procedures to ensure we meet our international obligations on safety of life at sea.

As any deployment of the tactics under the powers will be carried out in full accordance with those obligations, the welfare and safety of those on board vessels will be the priority throughout. With international obligations in this context not being a matter for UK legislation, we do not consider it necessary to add the amendment. I also note that any deployment of maritime tactics will be carried out in full compliance with obligations under the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act.

I turn now to amendment 145. The schedule that it would amend deals with new powers allowing Border Force and others to require vessels to be taken to a non-UK port if necessary. There are a number of reasons why we may wish to have the capability to do this, and they are not all related to the return or removal of asylum seekers. For example, any potential future agreement with partners to patrol waters jointly may require rescued or intercepted migrants to be taken back to the country from which they embarked on their maritime journey. As such, we do not consider that the amendment is needed or appropriate in schedule 5, and we are not prepared to commit to providing a running commentary to update on the progress of sometimes sensitive international negotiations.

I understand that the intention of amendments 146 to 148 is to emphasise the need to ensure that account be taken of human rights obligations by appropriately trained officers exercising these maritime powers. However, the amendments are unnecessary and would have no practical impact on the operation of the powers by Border Force officers and others. All operational officers within Border Force receive, and must have passed, appropriate training in order to exercise their duties. In order to be appointed as an immigration officer, an official must successfully complete and pass a foundation course that includes understanding the European convention on human rights as it relates to the Human Rights Act 1998, and their resulting obligations in the context of exercising powers.

Additionally, those exercising maritime powers will have gone through further specialist training for the operation of their powers at sea and will be operating those powers within official guidance that explicitly outlines the requirement to take full account of the Human Rights Act, and therefore the European convention on human rights, when considering their use. The Government are clear that any exercise of maritime powers against migrant vessels at sea will be done in full compliance with all our international and domestic obligations, and thus these amendments are not required.

I turn finally to amendment 149. To a certain extent, I will return to arguments similar to those that I have just made. I begin by reiterating that no official can be appointed as an immigration officer and exercise their powers until they have received and passed training courses that include understanding the European convention on human rights as it relates to the Human Rights Act 1998. The liability protections afforded in proposed new section J1 of the Immigration Act 1971, which will be inserted by the Bill and which the hon. Member for Sheffield Central seeks to amend, explicitly state that officers need to be acting in good faith and within the functions of this part of the Act. In addition, all officers will have received training on relevant human rights implications as a prerequisite of being able to exercise their powers. I do not consider that there is any further necessity to restate that through an amendment.

Any exercise of maritime powers must take full account of our international obligations, including consideration of human rights issues, and will be undertaken only by relevant officers who have successfully passed their training in full. Thus, in my view, there is no additional requirement to have that stated in the Bill. For all the reasons I have outlined, I request that the hon. Gentleman not press his amendments to schedule 5.

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Craig Whittaker.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.