After an arduous 6 weeks of campaigning and intense back and forth debates from the leadership candidates, Liz Truss has secured a victory over ex-chancellor Rishi Sunak to become the new Conservative leader and British Prime Minister. The campaigns have been dominated by discussion about the economy and rising energy costs, with each candidate expressing opposing solutions to the looming cost of living crisis. With such issues so heavily on the mind of the population, it is of little surprise that other matters have taken a back seat.
However, immigration has been such a focal point for the last 12 years of the Conservative administration, that it was integral for each candidate to offer a stance on immigration policy. As tradition would suggest, this means a continuation of the ‘Hostile Environment’, ‘Compliant Environment’ or ‘whatever they decide to call it next’ policy.
So, what is the new PM planning to bring to the table in terms of immigration? Her history of consistently voting for tighter immigration control and stricter asylum policy is enough to gauge a guess.
Conservative voters were surely not disappointed by both leadership candidates’ plans on immigration. Ms Truss presented a far smaller list of policies compared to Mr Sunak’s 10-point plan, but each offered a similar result. Ms Truss tweeted her three-point plan during her campaign, all of which call for tighter borders and adds difficulty for asylum-seekers.
Expansion of Rwanda policy
Ms Truss has promised to continue pushing for the Rwanda policy, but rather than addressing continuing opposition over its ethicality, she has expressed plans to expand the policy to other countries. Her prior position as Foreign Secretary provides Ms Truss with a background of negotiating international agreements, but as one of the more controversial of recent Conservative party policies on immigration, it is likely to attract the same human rights challenges that it did when first enacted.
However, much of the opposition to the policy has been the impact on human rights and the danger imposed by sending people specifically to Rwanda. It is possible that expanding the policy to other countries could open a new angle and prove more successful against these challenges. Time will tell on what Ms Truss plans to do with the policy, but it is clear that the Conservative party are sticking fast with the plan even with the departure of its author, Priti Patel, from the Home Office.
20% increase to border force staff
The new PM has promised to increase Border Force staff by 20%, and to double its maritime staffing levels. The input of resources is likely intended to combat the Home Office’s own 2022 report that found Border Force is ill-equipped to handle small-boat Channel crossings. The proposal likely looks to hand more control to the Home Office and move reliance from the Navy, although both Conservative leader ship candidates expressed the opinion that the Navy should continue to take a role in policing the borders. There is a possibility that this could fuel further attempts to initiate more forceful measures in the Channel, similar to the use of turnaround tactics which Ms Truss has said she would be willing to explore further. The government abandoned its pushback policy earlier in 2022, due to legal challenges around the danger of such tactics, heavily supported by Border Force staff members’ union, PCS, the RNLI and by the Navy itself.
Ensuring that European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) works for Britain
Ms Truss made the final point that they ‘will not cower to the ECHR and ensure it works for Britain’. The extensive opposition to policy such as the Rwanda plan has resurrected the proposal for a Bill of Rights, which was initially introduced in the 2015 Conservative manifesto. Ms Truss was vocal on a Bill of Rights throughout her tenure as Justice Secretary, and it comes as little surprise that continuing human rights oppositions from pesky ‘lefty-lawyers’ has spurred a resurgence to its popularity amongst the Conservative party.
The Bill of Rights proposes to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and make significant changes to how Convention rights are enforced domestically. It proposes to remove the duty of UK courts to ensure compatibility with ECHR and to remove consideration of European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) case law. This includes ensuring that interim measures, which have been integral in blocking asylum-seeker removals to Rwanda, are not binding on British courts.
The effect on immigration law and human rights challenges will be drastic. Although hidden behind the assertion that the UK will remain party to the ECHR, the effect will force more litigation to the ECtHR. This would generate lengthy and more costly legal challenges, and as a biproduct, significantly affect access to justice. The Law Society has outlined concern about the Bill and the effect on protection of people’s rights, access to justice and to the rule of law. Sentiments which have also been echoed by senior officials in the Council of Europe.
It is significant that Ms Truss has gone as far as to state that she would be prepared to remove the UK from the ECHR should there be no change to the powers perceived to be held by Strasbourg.
It may not all be doom and gloom to people wishing to relocate to the UK, however. Ms Truss plans to extend the farming seasonal worker route beyond its end date in 2024, and to increase numbers with longer periods to remain in the UK. The policy follows a range of measures introduced by the government over the past few years to combat labour shortages, but it is questionable whether many of these have actually been effective for the industries they have supposedly been trying to support. What can be said is that such plans are certainly nothing new.
So will we see significant changes in immigration law with Ms Truss’ administration? Obviously we must wait and see. It is certainly clear that Ms Truss intends to continue the work of prior Conservative administrations, which as discussed above lends itself to far stricter control over borders, dangerous plans to hinder asylum seekers, and limits on the ability to challenge such policies. Ms Truss has inherited a significant backlog in visa and asylum applications, and it is difficult to see how her three-point plan has the vision to fix the issues.