By Ann Higgins

 Photo by Deniz Fuchidzhiev on Unsplash

Despite Parliament taking (for some anyway) a much-needed summer holiday, there has been plenty going on which is worthy of comment. Perhaps the busiest minister has been our beloved Home Secretary, who managed to add another nickname to her portfolio following the discovery of the legionella bacteria in the water system of the barge Bibby Stockholm upon which she had decided to accommodate some 500 asylum seekers, doubling the number of berths for which it was originally meant and unplugging the cabin TVs at the same time. Like the Disney cartoons which her junior immigration minister Robert Jenrick ordered obliterated at a children’s reception centre for unaccompanied minors, presumably they were deemed to be too welcoming and thus had to be removed lest they detract from the required deterrent effect of being stuck on a barge miles from anywhere with nothing to do for an indefinite period. Let’s hope there’s not too much of a queue for the ping pong table.

In fact, having started out as a farce with the small number of asylum seekers who had been moved onto the barge having to be removed within days whilst the legionella infection was dealt with, the government’s “small boat week” turned into tragedy when a boat carrying a number of mainly Afghan asylum seekers overturned, leading to the deaths of six people. Given that the success rate for Afghanis applying for asylum here is 98%, it seems inexplicable that they (and Eritreans and Syrians, at 98% and 99% respectively) should not be able to avail themselves of the same sort of arrangement which was granted to Ukrainians, who could apply for permission to travel legally to the UK at offices in France. As it is, they now face not just a perilous sea journey but also the prospect of being denied the right to apply for asylum following the passing of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 last month. That said, the government has said that it will delay bringing into force most provisions of the Act until after the Supreme Court hands down its judgement in the Rwanda case, which is expected to be heard before Christmas. More details here.

Ms Braverman also had a rather bad week in court at the end of July, with the High Court determining that she had broken the law by withholding £3 a week to provide healthy food for pregnant asylum seekers and children under 3. Mr Justice Swift also found that she had broken the law by delaying payments to asylum seekers for long periods, and by failing to provide support for an 82-year-old woman who has been awarded compensation after it was accepted that the Home Secretary had failed in her legal duty towards her. Three losses in a week – is that a record I wonder?

However, contrary to rumours which have been circulating over the last few weeks that Ms Braverman was about to lose her position in a reshuffle, it appears that plans for such a drastic change have been shelved. Indeed she is thought to be at the forefront of a movement to include leaving the ECHR in the next Tory manifesto, with several other Cabinet ministers said to support her position. Whilst they, as non-lawyers, may have an excuse for not knowing how this would conflict with our commitments under the Good Friday Agreement, surely she can have none. It is in fact integral to the GFA as David Allen Green sets out here. Despite this, I suspect that we will hear rather more of this after the Rwanda case is decided, particularly if it goes against the government.

Finally, following the dreadful case of Lucy Letby, the issue of the relative merits of independent and statutory enquiries has been in the news, with several legal luminaries opining that the former would be entirely suitable as it would be quicker (which is surely dependent more on the amount of evidence than the sort of enquiry it is) and just as able to compel witnesses to produce documents and give evidence as the latter. To use a well-worn legal phrase, with the greatest of respect these people have short memories. It was only last month that the Cabinet Office was trying to stop the chair of the Covid Inquiry from having full access to the WhatsApp account of Boris Johnson and other potentially relevant documents. Indeed, it was prepared to take the case to the High Court to prevent their disclosure, and even after it had lost and was ordered to hand them over unredacted, its first move was to make an application to the chair, Dame Heather Hallett, to have them back. Without the power to compel disclosure of documents and the attendance of witnesses, the chair of any inquiry into the tragedy at the Countess of Chester hospital is going to be severely hampered, in a case where surely justice can only be served by the greatest possible openness.

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