Six powerful speeches from the Lords’ Rwanda debate

The government’s controversial asylum plan was met with unsparing scrutiny in the upper house on Monday. Here, Prospect republishes half a dozen contributions from sceptical peers

January 30, 2024
 Image: DIGITEYES / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: DIGITEYES / Alamy Stock Photo

Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, Second Reading, House of Lords

Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, constitutional historian (crossbench):

My Lords, to understand a nation and its people, you need a feel for the inner bundle of practices, characteristics and states of mind that create the image that a country carries of itself, which in turn shapes the way that others see it. For those of us fortunate enough to have been nurtured within the bounds of our cherished archipelago in the cold northern seas, the rule of law has a fair claim to be the most lustrous of our values, almost talismanic in its properties, so anything that threatens, weakens or tarnishes our crucial defining value, the inspirational principle for governing and living well together, is a first-order matter. I regret to say that the Bill before us falls into that category. 

This is a moment of immense significance for parliament, the judiciary, our people and the very quality of our democracy. In no way do I diminish the electric charge of the question that uncontrolled immigration generates, but I fear that the government have become fixated on their talisman, the Rwanda policy, which ministers claim will break the economic model of the cruel, evil, heartless people who put the boats and their desperate passengers to sea off the beaches of northern France. For what it is worth, my own view is that it cannot be beyond the capability of Whitehall to work up a scheme for the swift dispatch of asylum claims, with safe and humane shelter provided in the UK for claimants while they await the results of their applications.

By rushing this emergency legislation through parliament with the intention of getting the deportation flights to Kigali under way by late spring, the government have already secured for themselves a special place in British political history. The day may not be far off when the Rwanda Bill, having cleared all its parliamentary stages, will be forwarded from the Cabinet Office to Buckingham Palace to receive Royal Assent. In the few minutes that it takes to pass down The Mall and across the tip of St James’s Park on its return journey to Whitehall, our country will change, for the government will have removed us from the list of rule-of-law nations. We shall be living in a different land, breathing different air in a significantly diminished kingdom. Is that what any of us really wants?

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury:

 My Lords, in almost every tradition of global faith and humanism around the world, the dignity of the individual is at the heart of what is believed. In the Christian tradition, we are told to welcome the stranger. Jesus said:

“I was a stranger and you invited me in”.

In numerous places in the Old Testament and the New, the commands of God are to care for the alien and stranger. It has already been said, and I agree, that the way that this Bill and its cousin, which we debated in the summer, work is by obscuring the truth that all people, asylum seekers included, are of great value. We can, as a nation, do better than this Bill.

With the Bill, the government are continuing to seek good objectives in the wrong way, leading the nation down a damaging path. It is damaging for asylum seekers in need of protection and safe and legal routes to be heard. It is damaging for this country’s reputation, which the government contradicted even as late as last week, when the prime minister himself spoke eloquently on the value and importance of international law for this country. It is damaging in respect of constitutional principles and the rule of law.

Most of all, it is damaging for our nation’s unity in a time when the greatest issues of war, peace, defence and security need us to be united. We are united on, I think, almost all benches, in agreeing that the boats must be stopped. The government are to be congratulated that the number has come down. We also agree that the people smugglers who trade in human misery must be brought to justice, and it is good news that so many of those groups have been broken up. We need to be united on effective controls on agreed limits to immigration. The right way forward, though, is to enable the unity on ends to be translated into a unity on means. That is not happening in the way that these Bills are successively brought to the House and before the country.

The challenge of migration is, as has been said, long-term and global. So must our response be. We need a wider strategy for refugee policy—I spoke on this at boring length in the summer and will not repeat it—that involves international co-operation and equips us for the far greater migration flows, perhaps 10 times greater, in the coming decades, as a result of conflict, climate change and poverty. Instead, the Bill offers only ad hoc, one-off approaches.

Rwanda is a country that I know well. It is a wonderful country, and my complaint is not with it, nor its people. It has overcome challenges that this House cannot begin to imagine. But, wherever it does it to, the Bill continues to outsource our legal and moral responsibilities to refugees and asylum seekers—when other, far poorer, countries are already supporting multitudes more than we are now—and to cut back on our aid. At the end of 2022, 76 per cent of refugees globally were being hosted in low- and middle-income countries—countries far poorer than our own. The UK should lead internationally, as it has in the past, not stand apart.

Others on these benches will say more about international and domestic law, human rights and the constitutional impact. I say simply that a pick-and-choose approach to international law undermines our global standing and offends against the principle of universality that is their increasingly threatened foundation.

Finally, my colleagues and I on these benches take our revising role seriously. When we vote, we seek to improve something. I will—sadly—not be voting with those who want to vote the Bill down today, although I found the speech by the noble Lord, Lord German, convincing and powerful. We must wait until Third Reading and we have done our revising work. We on these benches have been criticised many times over many decades by those thinking that defence of the government of the day should be our highest virtue and aspiration. We were accused last week of voting against the government’s whip. I am sorry to say we do not take the government’s whip. It may be worse news for this House to recognise that on the Labour benches it is not 95 per cent of times that there has been a vote against the government’s whip—that is a false statistic—but 100 per cent. Maybe they should be criticised for that obnoxious behaviour.

We serve on these benches as independent members. As recently as last Thursday, we were discussing what had happened in a particular vote and saw that we had cancelled each other out—bishops often cancel each other out in every possible way. We vote because we value deeply the traditions of this country and this House, and the truth we derive from the Bible and our service to Jesus Christ—our first priority. To misquote Luther, slightly: on that we stand. We can do no other.

Lord Clarke of Nottingham, former chancellor of the exchequer (Conservative): 

My 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.

My motive was that, first, it is necessary to have a credible and effective policy on illegal migration. It is a big problem and it is growing. It is small in relation to our total migration but its symbolic effect on public opinion is very important. The public need to be reassured that we have control of immigration into this country; if they think we have lost control, that threatens a very nasty change in public attitudes caused by doubts. We should all be proud of the relatively strong, multicultural and multi-ethnic society we have created in this country, much more successfully than most other European countries. That will be threatened by reactions to illegal immigration if it obviously starts to grow again and gets out of control.

The only policy I have heard in the debates so far, either here or anywhere else, that really resembled a possible working policy was that of using a safe third-party country to consider the refugee status of applicants. I listened to the debates here, most of which were legalisms and arguments about international law—which I last studied for my postgraduate degree and which I have never practised. I thought that the safe third country proposal—if you could find a safe third country—was worth a try, and I continue to back it in principle.

That policy hit a brick wall when it got to the Supreme Court. It failed there not because of any finding of international law that a policy of using a safe third country was in any way contrary to any convention, such as the refugee convention or the European Convention on Human Rights. The government were defeated on an issue of fact. Five Supreme Court judges considered the evidence submitted to the High Court, and all five of them were persuaded that on that evidence, which they had heard arguments testing, Rwanda was not a safe country for this purpose, particularly because of the risk of refoulement. That brought the Rwanda aspect of the policy completely to a stop.

The government’s reaction, which we are asked to approve, is quite startling to me. They have decided to bring an Act of Parliament to overturn a finding of fact made by the Supreme Court of this country. If we pass this Bill, we are asserting as a matter of law that Rwanda is a safe country for this purpose, that it will always be a safe country for this purpose until the law is changed, and that the courts may not even consider any evidence brought before them to try to demonstrate that it is not a safe country.

That is a very dangerous constitutional provision. 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?

As time goes by in my career, I always fear echoes of the warnings that Quintin Hailsham used to give us all about the risks of moving towards an elected dictatorship in this country. The sovereignty of parliament has its limits, which are the limits of the rule of law, the separation of powers and what ought to be the constitutional limits on any branch of government in a liberal democratic society such as ours.

The way this should be resolved is for the government to say that the facts have changed. We are not hearing or testing arguments. I am meant to cast a vote as to whether Rwanda is safe, and I have received an email, the text of the government’s treaty and the explanatory notes. I do not have the expertise on Rwanda that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham has just demonstrated. I have never been there. I know that it has been a one-man dictatorship for more than 20 years, that we sometimes give refugee status here to people fleeing persecution in Rwanda and, indeed, that it has a rather dodgy record—not as bad as some African countries—on human rights in various respects. I am not surprised by the judgment.

The government say that things have changed, but I have no means of testing that, and I agree with all those who have said that change is subject to the Rwandans actually complying with the treaty, to the training being effective, to change on the ground reaching the required standard and to periodic checks being made of that. That is not what Clause 2, which we are asked to approve, sets out.

I hope we consider this Bill with very particular care. I will probably be attracted to support some pretty startling amendments that go to some of the main purposes in the Bill. If the government wish to demonstrate that the facts have changed, some means should be found of going back to the court, facing another challenge, having a proper hearing of up-to-date evidence in the light of demonstrated improvement in the situation of Rwanda and getting a fresh judgment, if necessary, from the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, search for other safe countries. Do not vote for the Liberal amendment today because, as the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said, although I would love to see the Conservative Party got out of this particular mess, the main effect of the amendment would be to get the government out of the hole that they have dug for themselves. They have based far too much on this Rwanda policy, putting it at the heart of their political ambitions for the election. To be able to turn around and say that they would have stopped the boats but the unelected House of Lords, the Liberal Democrats and the metropolitan elite stopped them would save this government from what I think are their follies in crashing on with this policy in this way, and I hope we will not fall into that trap, at least, in our proceedings. 

Baroness Chakrabarti, former shadow attorney general (Labour): 

My Lords, it is a privilege for this daughter of migrants to share your Lordships’ House, but today in particular it is a huge responsibility.

People were once imprisoned for being in debt and transported across oceans as punishment for the smallest crimes of hunger and desperation. I believe that future generations will come to look at this government’s flagship policy with an incredulity similar to our feelings about those past inhumanities. But that is just my opinion.

It is also just my opinion that this Bill is repugnant to each tradition represented in your Lordships’ House. It is discriminatory, undermining the dignity of our fellow human beings, which is what asylum seekers and refugees are. It is illiberal and unconservative in its attack on a hard-won international rules-based order, the creation of which a previous generation of British statesmen was so proud. It is unchristian—indeed, contrary to the better instincts of all the great world faiths in its cruelty and dehumanisation. People are not sacks of carrots or widgets to be shunted around the globe for “processing”. To offshore one’s humanitarian responsibilities is as immoral as it is to offshore personal wealth as a means of evading public duty. But, as I say, that is just my view.

However, that the Republic of Rwanda is not currently or yet a safe place for those seeking asylum is not mere opinion; it is, as we have heard, fact. Furthermore, these are the facts found by the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom: not an international or “foreign” court, as the prime minister—another child of migrants—likes to caricature referees whenever he concedes a penalty or misses a goal, but the highest court in a land that has contributed so much to the development of the rule of law across the world. Your Lordships’ International Agreements Committee has ably reported on the factual conditions that must be met before the Rwanda treaty—the trigger for the commencement of this proposed Bill—can even begin to assuage the concerns of the Supreme Court.

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.

It is hard to justify unelected legislators in a democracy. Noble Lords no doubt have their own arguments to offer their children and grandchildren, such as the expertise, experience and wisdom of a scrutinising and revising chamber. For me, the most important argument, in an unwritten constitution that lacks entrenched protections even for the independent courts themselves, is that independent parliamentarians will stand with judges against executive abuse, because before democracy—before even our modem notion of rights and freedoms—the bedrock of any civilised society is the rule of law. 

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, human rights barrister (Labour):

 My Lords, I start by emphasising that the Bill is unlawful. It contravenes international law, it contravenes our own laws, it is unworkable, it is unaffordable, and it is immoral—because it involves taking incredible risks with human life. Your Lordships will remember that when the judgment from the Supreme Court came down, Lord Sumption was interviewed by the BBC. It was suggested to him that already the government were saying that they were going to pass this kind of Bill. Quite shocked, he said that it would be “profoundly discreditable” of them to pass a law which flew in the face of a judgment recently given on the fact that Rwanda was unsafe. That is the shameful thing here. Of course, parliament is entitled to do what it likes, but to say that black is white, or that Rwanda is safe when it clearly is not, is shameful.

The Supreme Court was clear about the facts. It based much of its ruling on the judgment from the Court of Appeal by the distinguished judge Lord Justice Underhill, whose judgment and contribution was as long as War and Peace in the number of words describing the failures of Rwanda in the past in considering applications for asylum; the ways in which it returned people by refoulement; and the climate of fear that exists in Rwanda. There is no independent judiciary because they are captured out of fear of Kagame, who rules with a rod of iron.

People are in fear of speaking out. If you go to Rwanda and ask people about their system, of course they cannot tell you the truth about what takes place. I received an email today from NGOs in the Congo that deal with immigration issues, and I asked if any of them was prepared to give us assistance at the Joint Committee on Human Rights. They said that no one was prepared to speak because they are so in fear of the long arm of Rwanda. They are entitled to feel that. The man who was the subject of the great film Hotel Rwanda and managed to evacuate so many Tutsis who were being massacred during the terrible genocide was himself arrested, picked up in Dubai, kidnapped and brought back to Rwanda, because he had criticised Kagame.

In 2018, 12 Congolese asylum seekers who made a peaceful protest about the rotting food they were being asked to eat were shot dead by the Rwandan police. If we are morally content to send people back to these risks, then we should think again.

Let us be clear on the purpose of this. It is because we have an election coming up and the government want to run up the flag the old subject of immigration and put people in fear of what that might mean. The government know they cannot fix Rwanda’s legal system in a matter of months or even years, so they have basically struck a deal with Rwanda to take everyone we send—economic migrants as well as asylum seekers. A person will get a place in Rwanda irrespective of whether they are an economic migrant or a refugee. All comers will be fitted in, except that in the treaty—as it was in the memorandum of understanding, although it is never mentioned to the general public—there is a special arrangement that Rwanda can send its vulnerable asylum seekers to Britain. I was glad to hear this mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope.

You may ask yourself, “Who are these vulnerable asylum seekers?” One example is that Rwanda has a problem on issues like homosexuality. It is not that there is a law against homosexuals, but they would have great difficulty getting by and living their life as homosexuals if people were to know it. The persecution of homosexuals is very real. There is a whole issue around the Afghani Hazaras, a minority within the Shia tradition of Islam, who are persecuted by Sunni Afghanis. Is there any risk to them if they were taken there for asylum? What about people with mental illness? There are very few psychiatrists in the whole nation of Rwanda, despite there having been a genocide 30 years ago, and 25 per cent of the population suffer from mental illnesses that cannot be treated. The vulnerable people who will be sent here to make use of our medical treatment will be those poor asylum seekers.

It is costing £400m for very little, but of course it is all about “performative politics”—to use the term mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox—at the expense of human lives. We should be ashamed. We had a proud tradition of the rule of law, which I hold to my heart. Let us not forget it—but we are forgetting it here.

Lord Wilson of Dinton, former cabinet secretary (crossbench):

My Lords, I begin with an anecdote that has some tangential connection with what the noble Baroness has just said. In 1988, when I was minuting Baroness Thatcher’s meetings, I minuted a meeting discussing the Immigration Act 1988, which required polygamous immigrants to choose which of their wives they wanted to have with them. She listened and nodded it through, and then said: “Why do we always discuss second-order and third-order issues but never the bigger issues? We in this country have never had a big, real discussion about the level of net immigration, legal and illegal. It’s the biggest change we’ve had over the last 30 years but we’ve never put it to the electorate, heard their views or explained to them the policy that we’ve followed.” I thought today, as I listened to the minister’s introduction, that that is also true of this Bill. It is an important part of immigration policy but not the biggest. The biggest issue is what is in the 2019 manifesto, which is bringing down the net level of immigration. There is no context for the Bill in that way. It is difficult politically because it takes in issues such as NHS manpower and social care, but nonetheless it is where the real issues lie. This is a kind of hectic, frantic displacement activity to distract attention from the big issues.

When I was permanent secretary at the Home Office, we had a big discussion in 1996 about world trends in migration. It was a disturbing discussion and we agreed that there was a coming storm. This is not a new problem; governments have had decades to get ready for it. We discussed all sorts of things, some of which are not relevant now, including whether we should continue to have a border control policy rather than something like the French ID cards, and there are big issues there that need public discussion. Someone mentioned third-party safe countries, but that was dismissed pretty rapidly on the grounds that you would never find a safe country now. So I find myself looking at this Bill thinking, “Here we are, experimenting with that conclusion.”

I am opposed to the Bill. We have heard some very powerful speeches, which I support. I hope that, in Committee—I think we will have to go through Committee; I do not think we will pass the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord German—we can pursue some sort of amendment requiring the government not to activate the Act until the Supreme Court has certified that Rwanda is safe. I think there is scope there for some sort of deal—you can phrase that as you want.

In the meantime, I have a couple of questions for the minister. First, would he please give a reply to my noble friend Lord Kerr about why exactly the Rwanda option is considered likely to be an effective deterrent? What is going on in the mind of the imaginary immigrant who, at the channel, suddenly changes his mind and stays in France? What is it that is putting him or her off—after they have been through mountain ranges, planes, wars, famine, deserts and goodness knows what—taking one small final risk before they get to their desired objective, the UK? What is it about the Rwanda option that is likely to put them off? We need to get inside the mind of the imaginary immigrant.

Secondly, I am deeply disturbed by the constitutional implications of the Bill, which have been set out far more adequately by others. I would like to know the limits in the government’s mind of this new power—I think it is new—to declare fact by legislation, even where the facts are untrue. For instance, would it allow the government to pass or propose a Bill stating that every returning officer in a general election must conclusively treat every vote for the Labour candidate as a vote for the Conservative candidate, or the other way around if you wish? You cannot use legislation to tell lies, and this is a lie in the sense that nobody knows whether or not Rwanda is safe. This is a very worrying innovation.

Finally, does the minister think that ministers should be able to instruct civil servants not to comply with international law? I would like answers to those three questions.