May 10, 2023 - 4:45pm

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke in the House of Lords this afternoon during the second reading of the Government’s Illegal Migration Bill, a policy he referred to as “morally unacceptable”. He said that Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman’s plan “risks great damage to the UK’s interests and reputation at home and abroad”, citing Matthew 25, in which Jesus encourages us to welcome the stranger. Last year, the Archbishop said in an Easter Sunday sermon that the policy was “against the judgement of God”.

I am not a theologian, but as an MP who is also a Christian and a supporter of the plans I am uncomfortable with the Archbishop’s language. The implied conclusion is that a completely open border policy would be the most moral policy for the Government, but I disagree. The truth is that Liberals, both inside and outside the Church, often misapply the definition of Christian compassion. 

Compassion means being sympathetic to the suffering of another person and having a desire to relieve it. This does not involve giving everyone what they want all the time, and it doesn’t mean you can — or even should — attempt to relieve the suffering of every individual, with no regard to the impact on others in your care.

For example, a good parent will punish a child who hits their sibling. The child suffers as a result of the punishment, and the parent feels their pain. But the parent doesn’t cancel the punishment — even though it is within their power — because the long-term best interests of the child are best served by learning the consequences of violence.

My interpretation of the kind of compassion that compels us to step in immediately to relieve suffering is that it is reserved for the genuinely helpless: for those without agency. Think of baby Moses, who would have been killed if his mother and sister hadn’t stepped in to save him. But compassion does not mean we should always act directly to relieve the immediate suffering of adults who have agency, or when acting to relieve suffering would cause greater suffering in the long term.

There are sadly many people in the world who are suffering intolerably. If we are able to help directly those without agency who genuinely can’t help themselves — such as people at risk of torture or persecution — then we should. But the responsibility for helping everyone who is suffering in foreign countries cannot lie with the UK Government.

Migrants who have the money and mobility to travel across Europe and cross the Channel in small boats are not without agency. It’s certainly true that many people around the world would prefer to live in Britain, and that they live in much less comfortable economic and political circumstances than we do in the UK. It doesn’t mean, though, that we have a moral duty to allow uncontrolled migration into this country.

What’s more, prominent liberals paint an increasingly black-and-white picture of goodies and baddies, as if everyone who boards a small boat is a blameless victim, when we know that many of them go on to commit crimes and join criminal gangs in the UK. These critics of Government policy also ignore the indirect suffering — loss of security, economic competition, pressure on services — that British people face as a result of illegal immigration.

Of course, compassion is an important virtue. But so is wisdom, and it is wisdom that is required to solve the illegal migration crisis. Wisdom says that the only way to stop the dangerous flow of small boats across the channel is to deter the international criminal smuggling gangs which are responsible. 

Deterrence is achieved by clear boundaries that are consistently enforced. Only a clear and unambiguous message, such as “if you come here illegally you will not be allowed to stay”, will act as an effective deterrent. Anything else is an invitation for continued exploitation. The best way to show compassion to those being trafficked around the world is to effectively deter the people-smuggling gangs, whose exploitation and criminality is surely the greatest evil within the discussion around illegal migration.

That would be a truly moral victory.

Miriam Cates is MP for Penistone and Stockbridge