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Illegal Migration Bill: Economic Impact Assessment

Volume 831: debated on Tuesday 27 June 2023

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Minister for Immigration to an Urgent Question in another place on the publication of the economic impact assessment on the Illegal Migration Bill. The Statement is as follows:

“The Illegal Migration Bill is critical to stopping the boats. Its intent is clear: if you come to the United Kingdom illegally, you should be detained and swiftly returned to your home country if safe or relocated to a third country such as Rwanda. This will help break the business model of the people smugglers, save lives and deter small boat crossings.

The impact assessment published yesterday makes it clear that inaction is simply not an option. The volumes and costs associated with illegal migration have risen exponentially, driven by small boat arrivals. Unless we act decisively to stop the boats, the cost to the taxpayer and the damage to society will continue to grow.

The asylum system currently costs £3.6 billion a year and £6 million a day in hotel accommodation. The impact assessment estimates that, at current spending levels, the Bill would need to deter 37% of arrivals to enable financial savings for the taxpayer. However, the cost of accommodating illegal migrants has increased dramatically since 2020. If these trends continue, the Home Office will be spending over £11 billion a year, or over £32 million a day, on asylum support by the end of 2026. In such a scenario, the Bill would need to deter only 2% of arrivals to enable cost savings.

The impact assessment suggests that passing this Bill could save the UK taxpayer over £100,000 for every illegal migrant deterred from making a small boat crossing. It also found that the Bill could lead to wider benefits, including reducing pressures on local authorities, public services and the housing market.

There is clear evidence that policies such as this have a significant deterrent effect. We considered evidence from Australia. Its Operation Sovereign Borders reduced the number of illegal maritime arrivals to Australia from around 18,000 in 2013 to virtually zero in subsequent years.

The British public are clear that they want to stop the boats. That is why we must keep using every tool at our disposal to stop the boats, and why this Bill must become law.”

My Lords, yesterday the Government released an impact assessment on the Illegal Migration Bill, two days before the first day of Report on the Bill, contrary to the principles of HM Treasury’s Green Book and the Better Regulation Framework guidance to departments. The impact assessment does not contain an explanation of the costs and benefits, does not outline alternative policy options and was not published on the same day that the Bill was introduced.

The impact assessment quite literally states that it has

“not attempted to estimate the total costs or benefits of the proposal”.

It also does not consider anything other than either implementing the Bill as a whole or not implementing the Bill at all. Do the Government believe there are any other options?

The timing of the impact assessment’s arrival has prevented the other place from improving it with its scrutiny. A significant proportion of the time set aside in this House has been taken up discussing the arrival of the impact assessment. Does the Minister think this is good policy-making procedure?

If this House is to perform its critical function of scrutinising legislation, it is necessary for us to have complete, comprehensive and timely information about the basis on which policy choices are made and the reasons alternative options have been rejected. Can the Government now explain why an impact assessment for such a significant Bill does not conform to government guidance on policy communication with Parliament?

I thank the noble Lord. The answer is that there are no other options. The option before the House tomorrow and on succeeding days is the Bill; the alternative is the present scenario, which is not tolerable, in the Government’s view. On the questions about the timing and context of the impact assessment, it was drafted, obviously, in the context of the need urgently to address the dangerous and illegal crossings of the channel. Accordingly, the legislation and the IA were prepared in order to address that problem at speed. It is also the case that the Rwanda scheme was the subject of a legal challenge in the courts, and clearly it was appropriate to take that into account in preparing the impact assessment.

On the question about whether the impact assessment complies with government guidance, I suggest that, in the context of the Bill, it does. It sets out, so far as can be ascertained, the likely impact. But this Bill, like others, is predicated on a strong theory of deterrence, and it is therefore important to note that it is hard empirically to provide detailed statistics, because the purpose of the Bill is to deter the illegal crossings, as the noble Lord acknowledges.

My Lords, it is no wonder that we have had to wait so long for this impact assessment, because it makes very uncomfortable reading for the Government. It tries to justify the unjustifiable by leaving out the costs of so many pieces of the project. It is certainly not rigorous: uncertainty is mentioned 24 times and the Government have looked at only one option. As the House heard in Committee, the Government could have made other choices. This IA cements in uncertainty because it fails to provide a sensible view of the cost consequences, given the outcome of a policy that does not distinguish between those fleeing for their lives and safety, and others.

The impact assessment does not measure the impact on local authorities. It does not measure the impact on the budget of not having the third countries to remove people to, with people having to remain in limbo. It also does not measure the impact on children and the victims of modern slavery, who are not able to obtain protection and support. In essence, this impact assessment has more holes than a Gruyère cheese.

Are the Government diverting resources from reducing the backlog in order to resource the implementation of the illegal migration legislation? That comment has been made in the media throughout the last week: people are being diverted from reducing the backlog in order to make sure that the Bill is resourced.

The impact assessment is clear that, if the deterrent does not work and the numbers arriving do not change, costs will be higher, so why has the range of costs left out the development costs to implement the project? Where is the cost in this assessment of containing more—

My Lords, I remind noble Lords that there are 10 minutes for a UQ. Therefore, if noble Lords kept their comments to a minimum, we could get through more questions.

The Government say that this is an “illustrative analysis”—it certainly provides more illustrations than proper analysis of the costs.

I do not accept the premise of the noble Lord’s question, if that is what it was. The impact assessment published yesterday supports the need for change, sets out the broad costs of implementing the Bill, outlines potential savings, and highlights examples of where policy and operations have delivered an impact on illegal migration in other countries. For example, it shows that, for every illegal migrant deterred from making these crossings, the Bill will save the taxpayer £106,000, rising to £165,000 if current trends in accommodation costs continue.

My Lords, can the Minister advise the House as to what weight should be given to this financial and legal impact assessment alongside the damage caused to the consistency of our domestic law and the terrible damage being done to our reputation as a keeper of international treaties?

As I made clear during its earlier stages, the Bill introduces a new legal regime, and it is the Government’s view that it is consistent with our international obligations, which we always strive to meet. It is right that the facts in this impact assessment, and in the overall assessment of the situation made by the Government, are in favour of this legislation.

My Lords, the Statement said that the Bill will have a deterrent effect and that there was strong evidence of that effect. Could the Minister therefore explain why the impact assessment says that

“it is not possible to estimate with precision the level of deterrence that the Bill might achieve”?

It refers also to:

“The academic consensus … that there is little to no evidence suggesting”

such a deterrent effect.

I refer the noble Baroness to the answer I gave in relation to the evidence from Australia, and, in particular, to paragraph 38 of the impact assessment.

My Lords, the Minister used Australia as an example, but has he not noticed that the channel is 20 miles across? With Australia we are talking about thousands of miles, so there is no comparison to be made. How much will the £170,000 to Rwanda cost? What is the budget for that element, and is it built into the assessment?

Yes, I had noted the geographical distinction, but I suggest to the noble Lord that, in theory, the principle is the same: if you arrive here illegally, you will be detained and removed. That has worked in the context of Australia. As for the second part of his question, yes, the impact assessment does assist in the financial planning of the budget and strongly favours progression with the Bill.

My Lords, in the other place, Theresa May said:

“The Home Office knows that the Bill means that genuine victims of modern slavery will be denied support”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/3/23; col. 593.]

In this House, we were very proud of the Modern Slavery Act, so why are the Government dismantling its provisions?

As the noble Lord is aware, it is the intention of the Bill to create as a tight a framework as possible, and there is a risk that a loophole would be created if the modern slavery provisions were left unamended. That is the purpose of the provisions on modern slavery in the Bill.

My Lords, that is no answer to the noble Lord. The Modern Slavery Act was introduced by the Government, supported by us on this side, and received with pride in all parts of the House. It is being unravelled and there is no proper excuse for that.