Nearly 100 MPs – many of them Tory back-benchers – voted to give ministers rather than judges the final say over whether deportation would breach the human rights of foreign criminals to have a family life.
But Tory MP Dominic Raab’s amendment to the Immigration Bill was defeated by 241 votes to 97, a government majority of 144.
The amendment only failed because of opposition from Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs. Downing Street, anticipating a massive rebellion, decided to order Tory ministers to abstain so as not to lose face.
During the debate, Mr Raab said foreign criminals were using their rights as the “joker” to escape deportation.
The MP said many crime victims were being put at risk because their attacker remained in the UK, as he told the Commons that human rights had become “dirty words”.
He said it was time the law was changed so foreign criminals could no longer use Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights – a right to a family life – to escape deportation.
The House of Commons heard that a Freedom of Information request from the MP had found there were up to 400 cases each year where foreign criminals used Article 8 to avoid being sent to their home country, while 89 per cent of all successful appeals to remain in the UK relied on criminals basing their claim on a right to a family life.
Under the Immigration Bill, the government wants to oblige judges to take in to account factors in favour of deporting a criminal. But Mr Raab says this change would still mean too much discretion for judges.
His amendment would have given the Home Secretary the decision in any case. The only route left to a foreign criminal after a decision would be in the High Court.
Mr Raab told the House of Commons victims of crime wanted foreign criminals deported.
He said: “You really do actually have to study the case law of the Immigration Tribunal to appreciate the extent to which these cases endanger the public and, frankly, for many people outside of parliament, make human rights dirty words.
“Some argue the rights of the partners and children of serious convicted criminals must be given due weight.
“But in reality, far from safeguarding the vulnerable, it can expose them to undue pressure, if not worse, by dangerous offenders.
“Unless there is a tangible threat to life or limb, these convicted killers, rapists, drug- dealers and other very serious criminals should be sent home. They should not stay on the streets of Britain.”
Earlier, there was confusion in the Commons as Home Secretary Theresa May sought to attack Mr Raab’s amendment just as Downing Street was ordering ministers to abstain in the vote.
She told MPs that Mr Raab’s amendment was “incompatible” with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper described the bill as a “car crash” as she accused Mrs May and Prime Minister David Cameron of being scared of their own back-benchers.