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Rwanda Bill rides out Lords amendments’ backed by bishops

13 February 2024

Parliament TV

The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, speaks in the Lords on Monday night

The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, speaks in the Lords on Monday night

THE first attempts by bishops and other members of the House of Lords have been made to address “significant concerns” over legalising the deportation of illegal immigrants to Rwanda.

The first amendments fell, however, after the Committee Stage of the Government’s Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill began in the Lords on Monday evening.

‘This Bill looks politically explosive’

The Bill has been drafted by the Government in response to a recent Supreme Court ruling (News, 17 November 2023) that unanimously upheld a Court of Appeal ruling that the policy would leave people sent to Rwanda open to human-rights breaches (News, 7 July 2023). In 2022, the High Court had ruled that the policy was lawful (News, 23 December 2022).

The purpose of the Bill is described as to “prevent and deter unlawful migration” — particularly by illegal routes — by “confirming” that the Republic of Rwanda is “a safe third country, thereby enabling the removal of persons who arrive in the UK under the Immigration Acts”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was not present in the chamber, but was supporting several amendments from Baroness Chakrabarti (Labour). During its Second Reading earlier this month, Archbishop Welby described the Bill as “damaging” — not only to those seeking protection in the UK, but to the UK’s reputation and the rule of law (News, 2 February).

The first of the two amendments was to ensure that the Government could remove illegal immigrants to Rwanda only if two conditions were met: that the UNHCR advised that “Rwanda is now safe; for example, as a result of the successful implementation of promised reforms and safeguards to the asylum system there”; and “that this advice has been laid before both Houses of Parliament”.

Another amendment, Baroness Chakrabarti said, “replaces the edict that Rwanda ‘is’ safe with that belief that it ‘may become’ so”; and her final amendment was intended to ensure that “even clear and positive advice from the UNHCR would create only a ‘rebuttable presumption’ that Rwanda is safe.”

Speaking on behalf of Archbishop Welby, the Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, told the House on Monday that “there remain very significant concerns about the contents of the Bill, not least about using legislation to make a declaration of fact in order to correct a court that has heard evidence. . .

“The purpose of these amendments is to match the Bill more closely to the requirements of the Supreme Court judgment, so that it is more just and less open to challenge. For the sake of the people whose lives will be affected by yet more upheaval, who, as it stands, will not even have the opportunity to have their claim heard in this country, we cannot afford to get this wrong.”

He insisted that the amendments “do not wreck the Bill, nor remove the objective of deterrence from it” — rather, they addressed concerns about its compliance with international law.

Supporting the amendments, Lord Coaker (Labour) said: “I am astonished and astounded and find it unbelievable that His Majesty’s Government have to be reminded that we want our Government to comply with international law.”

Lord Howard (Conservative) argued that the “advice” from the UNHCR would be binding and remove the decision from the Secretary of State.

The author of the Bill, Lord Sharpe, argued that the Government had done its own research and assessment of the safety of Rwanda and was confident in the terms of its treaty with Rwanda.

Without his support, Baroness Chakrabarti withdrew her amendments.

Bishop Chessun also supported an amendment, brought by Lord Hailsham, to make it clear that the Bill replaced the Supreme Court findings.

“A Bill cannot change the actual situation on the ground in another country; it can only mandate that evidence to the contrary is disregarded,” the Bishop said. “Legislating that Rwanda is a safe country does not necessarily make it so for the potentially vulnerable people who might be sent there. However, the Bill’s primary purpose is to disregard the UK’s own Supreme Court’s finding that Rwanda is not a safe country for asylum-seekers.”

The amendment was not moved after the previous one was withdrawn.

The Bishops of Bristol and St Edmundsbury & Ipswich supported in absentia two amendments from Lord Blunkett (Labour), who, in his opening remarks, warned: “Nothing that I say this evening should be taken as any endorsement whatever for any part of the Bill, because I do not believe that it will work or that it is acceptable in terms of our international conventions.”

His amendment would mean that “Someone who is offshored and can justify their asylum claim by showing that they are a genuine refugee should be allowed back into the [UK].”

In support, the Bishop of Lincoln, the Rt Revd Stephen Conway, spoke of his personal experience of Rwanda. While the people were “wonderful” and the economy had developed, “institutions of civil society remain substantially undeveloped,” he said.

Deportees must be given the right to return and establish a claim in the UK; not to give them this would be “simply immoral” and should not even be contemplated, he said.

“We need to look very carefully again at putting this burden on the people of Rwanda and how we might think much better about working together with other nations in developing a pattern that will help us, in the longer term, cope with huge further migration through climate change, which we have not even contemplated yet and which will affect us very deeply.”

The amendment was not moved.

The consideration of further amendments will continue during the next sitting on Wednesday and again on 19 February.

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