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22nd August 2023

The Baroness: Frances D’Souza on Sir Keir Starmer, Rishi Sunak and the current deluge of legislation in the House of Lords

The former Speaker of the House of Lords explains the current deluge of legislation facing a somewhat recalcitrant House of Lords


I don’t think the next election will be a slam dunk for Sir Keir Starmer. The main reason for that is that I don’t think Starmer is a leader. Of course, Rishi isn’t either, but the Tories won’t do anything about that until the next election, after which they’ll likely get rid of him.

Having said that, I met Sunak recently, and I found him very nice: he comes across as someone who listens, and he is very smart. He said something which I thought was wonderful: “I believe in doing less but doing it well.” This led onto another conversation about the sheer volume of legislation tumbling down on us. He said: “It was on the books when I came into position.” He was basically saying, “Not my fault, mate.” But it does mean that if Sunak continues – which I doubt he will – he’ll bring in less legislation, which would be a very good thing.

All in all, it’s been this cataract of legislation. There have been three bills. The Online Safety Legislation Bill has been in the making for about six years, and deals with the uncontroversial idea that there should be some online protection regarding content harmful for children. Molly Russell’s father has been campaigning on this; and Beeban Kidron, a fantastic cross-bencher, has been leading on that, and done a fantastic job.

I’m always in principle opposed to any legislation which interferes with free speech, because once it’s on the statute books it’s a hostage for fortune. You never know, we might have a fascist government one day; it’s not impossible. It’s a very technical bill, which only a very few people understand. Ultimately, the large companies are going to have to abide by advertising standards, but to get them to do that may require legislation.

The second bill is the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill whereby the government is seeking to wipe off the statute books around 6000 executive orders which have come from the EU. The minister dealing with that happens to be dealing with that Martin Callanan is quite abrupt and there have been some testy exchanges. That makes life quite interesting – people at least wake up!

But I’m particularly concerned about the third bill, the Illegal Immigration Bill. This goes against our treaty obligations – as was pointed out in the second reading in the House of Lords.

As the Bill stands, we have the government-sanctioned entry points, which have special status – essentially if you’re an Afghan or Ukrainian refugee, or if you’re from Hong Kong. But let’s say, for example, that you come from Eritrea: if an asylum application is refused, then you can never return in your lifetime. Furthermore, if you’re an unaccompanied child, you can stay until you’re 18, then you’re sent to Rwanda. It rides roughshod over 1951 Refugee Convention.

The point the government makes – and it’s clever of them to make it – is that nobody is coming up with an alternate system. What we argue is that if the UK is serious about immigrants and asylum seekers in genuine fear of persecution, then they’ve got to create more safe routes into this country.

In actual fact, the numbers that comes here are quite low pro rata as compared with Germany, France, Italy, Greece and other European countries. Of course, there is undoubtedly a problem with economic migrants who come here, but there is a mechanism in place to determine people’s claims.

The question is why does the government not go after the criminal gangs? They’ll never succeed in starving them of revenue with the current proposed legislation. Really they need to infiltrate the criminal gangs. Intelligence ought to know who they are – and if they don’t, they should. It’s certainly worthy of a question in the House. Are the intelligence services on this?

Incidentally, the current processing of the special programmes is a shambles. The Ukrainian situation has more or less obliterated the work on Afghanistan, due to the melancholy fact that the Foreign Office can’t do two things at the same time. To be registered as a genuine asylum seeker, the offices which issue refugee passes are few and far between, and hugely overburdened with around 350,000 people currently awaiting recognition that their application is bona fide.

All of which, as Sunak knows, is a lot for the Houe to process. The trouble is we only have about 50 or 60 hard-working peers; they do a fantastic job, but that number is very small – but the question of House of Lords reform is a topic for another article altogether.


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