Scotland’s Social Justice Secretary has accused the UK Government of a deliberate attempt to “confuse the British public” over its Illegal Migration Bill.
During a Holyrood debate on the legislation on Tuesday, Shirley-Anne Somerville restated the Scottish Government’s opposition to it, calling for the UK Government to withdraw the Bill.
The changes would make clear that those arriving in the UK illegally would not be able to remain in the country, and the proposals have been subject to criticism in recent days from the Council of Europe and the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said the wording of the Bill suggests those crossing the Channel in small boats are coming for “reasons other than persecution and fleeing death and tyranny”.
“I think there’s a deliberate attempt to misuse terms, confuse terms and therefore confuse the British public on our responsibilities.”
She went on to attack the Bill’s proposed handling of child migrants, claiming it would deny them “the right to feel safe and the right to live a full and happy childhood”.
The Bill, she claimed, “effectively reverses” the ban on child detention and would see young people whose age is disputed considered adults if they refuse to undergo age assessments.
She concluded: “Scotland is stronger for our multiculturalism and non-UK citizens are an important part of our country’s future.
“That’s why we condemn unreservedly the UK Government’s Illegal Migration Bill as cruel and unnecessary, and we will continue to urge the UK Government not to progress this Bill but, instead, deliver a humane, flexible asylum and immigration system.”
Meanwhile, Scottish Conservative MSP Donald Cameron attacked the Scottish Government for debating a UK-wide Bill at Holyrood.
“We have seen the SNP Government this week accusing others of disrespecting devolution,” he said.
“But that takes some brass neck, with respect, when we are today debating an issue which is entirely reserved to the UK Parliament.
“We could instead be debating why A&E waiting times hit their worst level on record, or why cancer waiting times are the longest on record.
“We could be debating why the education attainment gap has widened not narrowed, or why after 16 years of SNP rule there are now fewer teachers in our schools compared to 2007-08.”
Mr Cameron said these were amongst the “deeply serious issues” the Scottish Parliament could have been debating “yet in the early weeks of this Government, we are debating a UK Government Bill about a matter entirely reserved to the UK Parliament”.
Ms Somerville insisted the Scottish Parliament “has the right to debate any subject it so chooses in the interests of the people of Scotland”.
She added: “I think the people of Scotland care about how we care about the most vulnerable in our society.”
Mr Cameron said the Bill aims to tackle “growing instances of people smuggling” and “reduce unsafe migrant crossings” in small boats.
Speaking about the proposed legislation, he said: “It aims to break the people smuggling networks and stop the criminal gangs who exploit the most vulnerable, and ultimately ensure lives can be saved.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The central premise of this legislation is clear: those in need of protection should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach rather than risking their lives or paying people smugglers to make the dangerous journey across the Channel.
“The Illegal Migration Bill sends a clear message that the exploitation of children, used by traffickers and ferried across the channel, cannot continue. An amendment has been placed to ensure unaccompanied children can only be detained in exceptional circumstances, with specific time limits, as set out in regulations.
“Age assessments are challenging but vital to identify genuine children and stop abuse of the system. Which is why we are launching the National Age Assessment Board, introducing scientific measures, such as x-rays, as well as tabling new amendments to the Bill to further strengthen the measures in place.”