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Bishops rile Conservatives in Lords’ Rwanda debate

07 March 2024

Parliament TV

In the House of Lords on Wednesday, Lord Lilley suggests that the Archbishop of Canterbury needs to check his “white privilege” and “colonial assumptions”

In the House of Lords on Wednesday, Lord Lilley suggests that the Archbishop of Canterbury needs to check his “white privilege” and “colonial assumpti...

TENSIONS surfaced between bishops and Conservative peers in the House of Lords on Wednesday, as issues of modern slavery, the safety of children, and the rule of law in relation to Rwanda were debated.

By close of play, the Government had suffered a further five defeats on amendments to the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill at its Report Stage. This included a call, supported by bishops (Comment, 6 March), to identify and protect victims of modern slavery and human trafficking from being removed to Rwanda without their consent.

The amendment from Baroness Butler-Sloss, which had been debated during the first day of the Report Stage, on Monday (News, 5 March), was agreed by 246 votes to 171.

Another amendment, to ensure that no unaccompanied children would be deported to Rwanda, was agreed by an equally large margin: 265 to 181. A version of this had fallen at the Committee Stage (News, 23 February).

It was brought by Baroness Lister and supported by the Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, who said: “Safeguarding is not some burdensome requirement but a moral and legal imperative. It is for this reason that I repeat the request that I made in Committee for a child’s rights impact assessment to be published. . .

“This amendment would help mitigate the risk of a person being sent erroneously — when they are, in fact, a child — by sensibly awaiting the result of any age assessment challenge before their removal.”

Referring to the recent report from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, which concluded that “there has been no assessment of the collective needs of the children,” the Bishop said: “Errors have been made in the age verification process and children have been subjected to unsafe adult environments as a result.”

She concluded her speech: “Finally, the golden rule, ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you,’ could easily be rephrased for this context into the question, ‘Would you consent to this course of action for your own child or grandchild?’”

Lord Lilley (Conservative) later countered: “Would she [the Bishop] send a child in a boat from France, a safe country, to the United Kingdom?”

She responded: “I think that is the wrong question. The point is that, behind every one of these figures, there are individual stories of enormous amounts of trauma that most of us cannot even begin to contemplate. I do not want to make a judgement about what goes on before somebody gets on a boat.”

Earlier in the debate, Lord Lilley had suggested that Archbishop Welby needed to check his “white privilege” and “colonial assumptions”.

During the first day of the Report Stage, on Monday (when the Government was defeated in the first five divisions), Lord Lilley — in response to arguments that Parliament could not, by law, state whether a country was safe — had argued that “the Blair Government did just that” through the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004. This requires a listed third country of removal to be treated as a place where the person’s life and liberty are not threatened or, where the person is not at risk of deportation to another country, in contravention of the Refugee Convention.

Responding, Archbishop Welby had referred to Winston Churchill’s advocacy of the European Court of Human Rights after the Second World War — linking domestic law to international law — to make it clear that creating a legitimate domestic law did not always mean that it was the right thing to do.

“The Government are not doing something on the scale of what we saw at that stage,” Archbishop Welby had said. “But they are challenging the right of international law to constrain our actions.” He went on to tell peers that “the point of international law is to stop governments going ahead with things that are wrong,” and that “it is a basic rule of ethics and morality that two wrongs do not make a right.”

On Wednesday, Lord Lilley took the first opportunity in the debate to respond to the Archbishop. “Of course, neither do two rights make a wrong,” he said. “I do not recall him, any right reverend prelate or any lawyer, over the many years that that [2004] Act was in place, ever decrying it in the way they decry this proposal. What is the difference?

“The first is that, in those days, the list was all of white countries, and now we are dealing with a black country. I warn the Most Reverend Primate that he had better check his white privilege and his colonial assumptions, or he might find himself in trouble with some of his bishops.”

In an interview with The Spectator, published on Thursday, Archbishop Welby brushed off the idea that the Lords Spiritual were “always on the Left”. The Bishops had been “as objectionable” to Labour policies when Sir Tony Blair was in power, he said.

He was also amused by MPs who held the view that clerics should not “preach politics from the pulpit”. “It . . . basically goes back to Thomas Becket. Don’t be political means be political, but not in a way I don’t like,” he said.

Going back to the Rwanda plans, Archbishop Welby said: “There’s a lot of what the Government says which I entirely agree with. Boats must be stopped. We must limit access to our borders: three-quarters of a million in any year seems to me to be far too many. And so we must have good border control. And we must pursue, go after the traffickers. That I totally agree with. . . We just don’t agree with the means and may well be wrong in that.”

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