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House of Lords votes against blocking the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill


Bill passes second reading stage in Lords and progresses to committee stage

Date of Publication:
29 January 2024

The Government's Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill has this evening passed its second reading stage in the House of Lords. By 206 votes to 84, the Lords voted against a motion to block the Bill. Labour abstained in the vote. The Bill now progresses to committee stage in the Lords.

House of LordsImage credit: UK GovernmentThe Bill will allow the Government to relocate asylum seekers to Rwanda even though the Supreme Court ruled in November that the policy was unlawful due to the risk of refoulement.

In today's debate in the House of Lords, Liberal Democrat Lord German moved a motion for the Lords to scupper the Bill by declining to give it a second reading.

Lord German said: "The treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, which this Bill is seeking to affect, is completely contrary to how we should act as a country with a reputation for protecting individuals' rights and freedoms, where the rule of law is upheld. … The Bill places the UK at risk of breaching our commitments under international law. We as a country have signed up to comply with the obligations of international treaties and conventions. Having done that, we need to demonstrate that, as a country, we can be relied upon to uphold international treaties, and that we promote a rules-based international order. … If the Bill is enacted, we will be legislating contrary to our international legal obligations."

He noted that the legislation was not in the Government's manifesto and he maintained that this was one of the rare occasions when the House of Lords should vote against a bill at second reading.

Labour's Lord Coaker told the Lords that it would not be appropriate for the Opposition to back Lord German's fatal motion. Coaker said: "We believe that the revision and scrutiny of legislation—the traditional role of the House—is the way forward for us. … There is a proper role for this House, and we believe that is to scrutinise and amend but not to block."

Labour abstained in the vote on Lord German's motion.

Opening this afternoon's debate, Lord Stewart of Dirleton, speaking for the Government, told the House of Lords that while some of the provisions in the Bill are novel, the Government is satisfied that it can be implemented in line with both the UK's domestic law and international obligations.

"Let me make clear that the Bill does not 'legislate away' our international obligations, nor does it seek to overrule or contradict the view of the Supreme Court. Its purpose is to say that, on the basis of the [Rwanda] treaty and the evidence before it, Parliament believes those obligations to have been met and the concerns raised by the court dealt with, not that the Government do not care whether they have been or not," Lord Stewart said.

There was considerable disagreement from many in the Lords.

Labour's Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede said the Bill, as it stands, threatens the UK's compliance with international law. He continued: "What does the Bill say about our respect for our own courts? If the treaty fails, if refoulement happens, if there is a coup or if asylum seekers are shot at or killed, the Government say that British courts cannot consider those facts."

Lord Ponsonby added that the Bill and the accompanying treaty with Rwanda will do nothing to stop Channel crossings, and the Government has not presented any evidence for its claim that it will act as a deterrent.

Lord Clarke of Nottingham, a Conservative peer and a former Home Secretary, said the Bill goes too far and it requires substantial amendment.

Lord Clarke told the Lords: "Last year I listened to quite a lot of the debate during the passage of the Illegal Migration Act and contributed to it once or twice. I had difficulty making up my mind as to whether I was going to support that Act. Eventually, although I expressed my reservations about whether Rwanda was a suitable place, I was persuaded that it was a good thing to support and I gave it my backing. Unfortunately, in the light of subsequent events we now have this Bill. At the moment, having considered it carefully, I must say that the details of the Bill, or its main point as in Clause 2, are a step too far for me, so I do not think I could possibly support it unless it is substantially amended as it goes through this House; we should urge the Commons to revise it."

Clarke said it was constitutionally "very dangerous" for the Government to respond to a finding of fact made by the Supreme Court by asserting that Rwanda is a safe country and preventing any further consideration of the issue by the courts.

"I hope it will be challenged properly in the courts, because we have an unwritten constitution, but it gets more and more important that we make sure that the powers in this country are controlled by some constitutional limits and are subject to the rule of law. Somebody has already said in this debate that Parliament, claiming the sovereignty of Parliament, could claim that the colour black is the same as the colour white, that all dogs are cats or, more seriously, that someone who has been acquitted of a criminal charge is guilty of that criminal charge and should be returned to the courts for sentence. Where are the limits?" Lord Clarke asked.

Baroness Chakrabarti told the Lords: "Wisdom counsels changing our minds when the facts change, not doctoring the facts when our minds are made up. In attempting to change facts with a draftsman's pen while simultaneously ousting the jurisdiction of our courts, the Bill is repugnant to the rule of law in general and the separation of powers in particular. In purporting to take ministerial powers to ignore interim rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, a permanent member of the Security Council will lose any moral authority to lecture other states on their international rule of law obligations in dangerous times."

The UK's official human rights watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), said today that the Bill risks damaging the UK's human rights legal framework and breaching its obligations under international law.

In a short parliamentary briefing prepared for the Lords, the EHRC commented: "[T]he Bill risks exposing individuals to serious harm, and undermining the UK's compliance with its international human rights obligations under Articles 2 (right to life), 3 (right to be free from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment), and 13 (right to remedy) ECHR, as well as other international obligations on non-refoulement."

The EHRC also said the Bill has regressive implications for the rule of law.

The parliamentary briefing stated: "The Bill displaces the role of courts in assessing evidence to determine the lawfulness of government policies and actions. Even if new evidence were to come to light, UK courts would be unable to consider it and would be required to continue to deem Rwanda safe. Preventing the courts from playing their important role in considering, in light of all the facts, the lawfulness of government policies and actions, undermines the separation of powers and the rule of law, which is a fundamental element of an effective legal framework for the protection of human rights."