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Braverman’s Conservative party conference speech: an empty vessel

Suella Braverman’s speech to the Conservative Party conference yesterday evening confirmed two things. She really doesn’t like the Human Rights Act, the Modern Slavery Act or the European Court of Human Rights. And that the problems with the UK immigration system are complex and intense. One of these problems is imaginary and the other real. No real solutions were offered to either.

You can read the text for yourself here.

Braverman had pre-empted the immigration section of her speech with her mood music briefings to various select journalists over the last few days. You can read our take on those here. The speech contained little or no concrete policy proposals and certainly nothing to back up the Times headline that Channel migrants were facing a blanket “asylum ban”. Her speech was instead full of rhetoric, anecdotes and predictable buzzwords. I think I scored a perfect ten in Braverman Bingo.

Legal migration

Good cop Braverman began by invoking her parents, who longed for a life in an “inspiring” Britain as children of the commonwealth. Migration is not just about policy and economics to her, she claimed. Homilies followed on “post-Brexit Britain” being able to determine its own migration policy, delivering economic growth and building international friendships.

Bad cop Braverman cuts in here to harangue British people about forgetting how to do things ourselves. We should be able to train up enough of our own HGV drivers, butchers or fruit pickers without relying wholly on low skilled foreign workers to build the economy.

Wait until she finds out which party has been running the country for the last 12 years.

There was no explicit mention of her desire to cut the number of post-graduate student dependents entering the UK, or of any other particular category. There was actually more detail in the ‘leaks’ (can you even have a leak from an empty vessel?) and briefings than in the speech itself. It is usually the other way around.

Illegal migration

Claiming to be grateful for the foundations Boris Johnson and Priti Patel laid — foundations the disintegration of which we can trace with every passing quarterly release of immigration statistics — Braverman stated four ambitions on what she continues to call “illegal” migration, despite her officials now classing them as “arriving passengers”:

  • Continue working with the French government to prevent Channel crossings, trafficking, and organised gangs
  • Find a way to make the Rwanda scheme work
  • Do more to get asylum seekers out of hotels; and
  • Stop allowing foreign courts to undermine the sovereignty of UK borders.

Notably, this comes nowhere remotely close to preventing asylum seekers from claiming asylum, as had been suggested in The Times that morning. “Channel migrants facing asylum ban” had screeched the headline. Braverman would introduce new legislation “designed to create a blanket ban on anyone who enters the UK illegally, including by small boat across the Channel, from claiming refuge,” the article went on.

We’re all used to film trailers being more exciting than the film itself, but this was like watching the trailer for Die Hard then seeing The Sound of Music. The singalong version. Braverman looks like she is very much falling into the trap of over-promising then being unable to deliver. It is also possible that the journalists she briefed filmed some additional scenes of their own for the trailer, I suppose. The reality is that there is no straightforward solution to ending small boat crossings other than replacing them with safe and legal routes, and no UK government is ever going to do that on the scale that would be required. Small boat crossings have become a permanent feature of the modern migration landscape.

Braverman claimed that the government’s work with the French has so far prevented about half of the Channel crossings otherwise expected. But, with a nod to the reality of ever-increasing numbers, she accepted that more is still to be done both at the borders, and “further upstream” (literally? – ed.) with organised criminal gangs. What is to be done, and how successful the continued collaboration with the French is, remains to be seen.

The cost of the Rwanda deal so far is tiny in comparison to the cost of allowing the asylum backlog to balloon to some 85,000 cases involving nearly 125,000 individuals, many of whom are forced to rely on asylum support. And Braverman accepts this, confirming that continuing to house asylum seekers in hotels is apparently costing the taxpayer around £5 million a day.

However, there was no mention of any actual solutions, such as providing asylum seekers with the right to work or reducing the size of the backlog. Instead, Braverman suggested that those entering the UK from a safe third country (i.e. France) should be “swiftly” returned to their home country. Without any agreement from those countries, though, Braverman is as powerless as Patel was before her. Alternatively, they might be removed to some other country. Like Rwanda.

What’s next for the Rwanda deal will depend firstly on the judgment expected to be handed down in the High Court later this month. In an interview earlier in the day — the one where she claims her ”dream” is to see a flight soaring away to Rwanda — Braverman accepted that the court process will be protracted, with appeals to the Court of Appeal, Supreme Court and perhaps Strasbourg still to come even after the High Court hands down its judgment later this month. More generally, and more vaguely, we can apparently expect legislation that “makes it clear the only route to the UK is through a safe and legal route”, so that the UK can ensure it is in a position to help those that need it the most, including women and girls. This doesn’t sound much like a blanket asylum ban but we’ll see. The ultimate question remains: what will actually happen to those who do arrive in the UK if they are denied access to the asylum system? The reality is that unless they can be removed somewhere else, they will stay here.

In search of a new bogeyman to blame, Braverman rounded on male asylum seekers from Albania. She claimed that one of the largest groups of small boat migrants are Albanians, which she claims to be a safe third country. Despite the fact that Braverman’s own officials grant asylum to half of Albanians currently claiming asylum. Braverman reasons that Albanians can’t be genuine victims of trafficking and modern slavery if they pay thousands of pounds in fees to those helping them cross the Channel. With apparently a 450% increase in modern slavery claims since 2014, she reasons that something must apparently be wrong. She claimed that convicted sex offenders make last minute modern slavery claims shortly before they are deported because of their criminal activities, stalling their removal and enabling them to commit further grievous crimes. Some might suspect that the use of the plural here is misleading.

Others might observe that being forced to pay lots of money to a person who exploits you is very much what trafficking actually is. And that the increase in modern slavery claims is because a previously ignored problem is gradually being exposed. Which most serious people would think is a good thing. Braverman would perhaps rather revert to the days of turning a blind eye. She claims she wants to strike the right balance, so that we can help those genuinely in need. Determination of who is genuinely in need seems to amount to those that enter the UK through specially established visa schemes. The Afghan resettlement schemes, the Ukrainian visa schemes and those eligible for BNO visas. There was no mention of how these schemes are really going, though.

“There are many forces working against us,” she claimed, like a latter-day Richard Nixon. “Labour will try to stop us,” she threatened. “The Lib Dems will go Bananas… The Guardian will have a meltdown…” Having already claimed, with no evidence whatsoever, that laws were being “abused by tactics from specialist, small boat-chasing law firms” our former Attorney General and former practising barrister returned to the theme for her finale. “The lawyers – don’t get me started on the lawyers. And I am a recovering lawyer.” The crowd went wild.

Braverman ended her speech with a call to action, “no ifs, no buts”. “Ifs” or “buts” to what, exactly, was not clear.

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Colin Yeo

Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.