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Government should think again after Rwanda Bill defeats in the Lords, says Bishop of Manchester

05 March 2024

Parliament TV

The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, addresses the Lords on Monday afternoon

The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, addresses the Lords on Monday afternoon

THE Government suffered “unprecedented” defeats on motions to amend the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill at its Report Stage in the House of Lords, on Monday afternoon.

The amendments were supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury and bishops in the chamber. The amendments required hard evidence — and not simply the Government’s word — that Rwanda was a safe country to which to deport asylum-seekers, and sought to ensure the Bill’s compliance with domestic and international law.

The overall 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”.

This is despite a 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).

Interpretation of the rule of law was central to the debate on Monday.

Archbishop Welby told peers: “The point of international law is to stop governments going ahead with things that are wrong. . . One thing I was brought up believing . . . was that it is a basic rule of ethics and morality that two wrongs do not make a right. So the fact that we have done the wrong thing in the past does not automatically make it right today.”

He was referring to an argument made by the Conservative peer Lord Lilley on the rule of law in the UK, which, Lord Lilley said, “for 1000 years has meant that laws made and approved by our elected representatives are partially implemented by the courts. . . If we do not like the law, we can try to persuade our elected representatives to change it.

“If Parliament feels that the courts have interpreted laws in a way that Parliament did not intend or that is out of line with the values and interests of the public who elect it, Parliament can change the law. That is what we are doing. We have a perfect right to do so as long as Parliament remains sovereign.”

Archbishop Welby was supporting an amendment from Baroness Chakrabarti, which, in her words would “require actual evidence of real implementation of the Rwanda treaty before that country is presumed safe, and only that this be presented by government to Parliament. That is all.”

This was also backed by the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Martin Seeley. In a brief contribution, he said: “I do not believe that we can enshrine in law a statement of fact without seeing and understanding the evidence that shows such a statement to be true, in particular when such a statement of fact is so contentious and for which the evidence may change.

“Ignoring for a second the strange absurdity of such declarations, we must also consider the real impact that this could have on the potentially vulnerable people whom the Government intend to send to Rwanda.”

Lamenting the Government’s “nitpicking excuses” about its length, Baroness Chakrabarti withdrew her amendment and supported Lord Coaker’s similar, simpler amendment, which sought to insert that the Bill maintains “full compliance with domestic and international law”.

This was immediately voted on and agreed by 274 votes to 172 — a defeat that the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, who was duty bishop this week, described on X/Twitter as “one of the largest government defeats since we returned to in-person voting after the Covid period”.

He later applauded “two further large [government] defeats, by margins of over 100 in each case. . . No doubt there will be attempts to remove the changes in the Commons, but the clarity of votes — by almost unprecedented margins of around 100 — should give pause for thought.”

Both of these amendments were brought by the cross-bench peer Lord Anderson. The first, would, in his words, “allow ministers, officials, and courts to depart from the presumption that Rwanda is safe when presented with credible evidence that it is not” — the second “would remove various detailed barriers to that course”.

He explained: “Their combined effect is to reverse two of the most revolutionary — I do not use that word in a positive sense — aspects of the Bill. They are the requirement for decision-makers, including courts, to stop their ears to any evidence that does not agree with the Government’s position, and the requirement that they should do so for an indefinite period, even if things in Rwanda — as we all hope that they do not — take a turn for the worse.”

The first amendment was agreed by 258 votes to 171, the second by 260 votes to 169.

Speaking in support, Dr Walker told peers: “To enshrine in legislation the notion that Rwanda will remain safe whatever seems to beggar belief. Who knows in what state that country might be in six to 12 months’ time? Who knows how safe it will be then?

“The courts need the ability to take new facts into consideration, to recognise that Rwanda may not be the same in a certain number of weeks, months, or years as it was on this evening at the beginning of March 2024. We must have that flexibility.”

The amendments were also supported by Bishop Seeley, who later spoke on behalf of the Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, in favour of including protections for current and potential victims of modern slavery.

Bishop Seeley said: “The provisions of the Bill are incompatible with protective obligations, but potential victims will not even be able to put this injustice to the courts under the Rwanda treaty. Not identifying victims or sending them to another country before their claim has been properly assessed will also set us back in our efforts to bring perpetrators of modern slavery to justice.”

The debate was adjourned until Wednesday before a vote could be taken.

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