16 November 2023

The time for tinkering has passed – we need decisive action to stop the boats


Controlling migration is vital to the effective operation of a state – yet, in Britain, it is proving extremely challenging. With over 112,000 small boats having crossed the Channel in the last couple of years, the status quo has become untenable. Not only does this undermine the rule of law, but it is deeply unfair to those who play by the rules and arrive here legally.

Deterring the (sadly) well-established trade of human trafficking is central to reversing this, and will require us deporting a large proportion of those who come illegally. This must be done in a swift and certain way, so people are under no illusion that there is ‘no point’ coming here on small boats. Moving just a handful of people to another country probably wouldn’t be enough to repel the people smugglers – the numbers need to be significant.

However, our ability to deport people who should not be here has been totally hamstrung, and this week’s Supreme Court ruling on the Rwanda plan is just the latest example of this worrying trend.

Even if the Court had ruled in the government’s favour, it’s not clear whether enough people would have been removed quickly enough to deter smugglers. There are just so many legal opportunities to appeal and stay. But now even that prospect is receding.

While I am not criticising the Supreme Court, its judgement shows the vast array of obstacles to deporting people, and it demonstrates that there’s not just one thing that needs fixing. A good starting point would be overriding the Human Rights Act. Lest we forget, the UK is unusual in Europe in having incorporated ECHR into domestic law.

So needless to say, I am very sceptical that a tweaked treaty will make this deal work well enough, fast enough, and at such a scale as to stop the boats. The sad likelihood is that we will just get bogged down in a quagmire of endless court cases.

Time is now also against us, and we can’t afford further delay. Though overriding the Human Rights Act is quite strong medicine and not to be done lightly, we have (reasonably) tried the alternative route, and it simply hasn’t worked. As Einstein never actually said, you can’t do same thing again and again and expect different results.

Yes, there are many considerations we would need to work through on Northern Ireland and the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement – but we can do this. Parliament is the highest authority in the land, and we should remember that our European friends have the same problems and thankfully, under Sunak, our relations with them have improved.

Too many in this debate want to just ‘manage’ the problem rather than fix it. But people are fed up of politicians explaining why fundamental issues can’t be fixed and they need someone to cut through the legal thicket and stop the boats.

The PM said yesterday that he will pass emergency legislation. He said that, ‘It will ensure that people cannot further delay flights by bringing systemic challenges in our domestic courts.’

He added that, ‘I will not allow a foreign court to block these flights. If the Strasbourg Court chooses to intervene against the express wishes of Parliament, I am prepared to do what necessary to get flights off.’

That’s welcome. The debate now moves to the content of that emergency legislation and exactly how it will work. With time left in this parliament running out, there’s only one chance to get this right. The challenge will be to pass legislation that will be bombproof in the courts.

None of this will be easy. But if we are to restore faith in fairness, democracy and the rule of law and order, it needs to be done.

We tried the cautious approach and that was reasonable – but we now know for sure – tinkering won’t work.

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Neil O'Brien is the MP for Harborough

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.