Nationality and Borders Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office
Moved by
24: Before Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—
“Compliance with the Refugee Convention
Nothing in this Part authorises policies or decisions which do not comply with the United Kingdom’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause reflects the Government’s stated intention of compliance with the Refugee Convention and ensures Part 2 provisions are read subject to that international legal obligation.
Lord Judge Portrait Lord Judge (CB)
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My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, has asked me to open the batting on this amendment. It is a very short, important and simple amendment that addresses an unnecessary problem. The Minister has told us—no doubt on the basis of legal advice—that the Bill in its present form is compliant with the 1951 convention and the 1967 protocol. In being so, the argument is, it will fulfil the Government’s repeated assertions that this is precisely what the Government intend. Indeed, the Minister said so in terms in answer to my request in Committee, and I apologise to her because at that late time of night I had simply missed what she said, or at least I had not fully absorbed it. She said:

“We are absolutely firm … that nothing in the Bill undermines our convention obligations”.—[Official Report, 10/2/22; col. 1985.]

So what is this all about?

I mean no disrespect to the Minister, of course not, but her statement is no more than mere assertion—an assertion of opinion based on what the department’s legal advisers have told and advised her. Some of us—indeed, many of us—share the Government’s apparently absolute commitment to the convention, but we do not think that the Bill does. We believe that the Government are wrong. In our view, provision after provision in Part 2—the debate will happen later on—contravenes the convention. With many others, I shall support the later amendments that seek to achieve compliance, simply because we believe that the provisions are not compliant. Many of us are lawyers too; we have to address convention issues, but many of us are not lawyers and are simply reading what the proposed legislation actually says. We are convinced that, as things stand, the Bill contravenes the convention, and does so repeatedly.

This is not a lawyerly quibble: even as we speak the problems of refugees are being shown to us in Ukraine. Rather than a lawyerly quibble, what worries me is that the debate has gathered echoes of the Christmas pantomime: “Oh yes,” say the Government, “This Bill is compliant with the convention”, and I reply, on behalf of others, “Oh no it isn’t compliant”, and the Government say, “Oh yes it is”, and we say, “Oh no it isn’t”, and so it goes on. But this is not a pantomime; this is lawmaking. I suspect that I am not the only person here who thinks it is a very strange parliamentary debate in which honest views exchanged in this way overlook that this is a deeply sensitive debate about which there has been much human suffering. The level to which it has plunged in relation to the pantomime is really rather serious.

The only place where this “Oh yes it is, oh no it isn’t” exchange can be resolved is in the legislation itself. If it is accepted, this very simple amendment will achieve both the frequently declared intention of the Government and the objective of those of us who believe that the legislation fails to do so. Let me explain this in a few words.

In future cases, the court will be bound by the provisions of the legislation which we have enacted—by its statutory provisions, not by repeated government declarations of their intentions. Even an advocate of the immense standing of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, who sought to rely, in court, on the repeated assertions of the declared intentions of the Government, was met with: “But that’s not what the legislation says”. Maybe the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, would have an answer to this, but even if he produced one, it would not be very effective.

If we are right—and I believe we—then we have this absurdity whereby the expressed intentions of the Government will be defeated by their own legislation. That is rather stark. If the expressions on behalf of the Government are genuine—and, although she is not here, I do not for one moment doubt the Minister’s personal good faith—we really are in cloud-cuckoo-land. The amendment will avoid that absurdity. There will be no uncertainty or equivocation. Any decision or policy in relation to the provisions of Part 2, whatever form they may eventually take, will be subject to the convention and protocol. This is on the unequivocal basis that it is a primary requirement of the legislation that any decision of the Home Office officials responsible, and any decision of the court considering those decisions under Part 2, must comply with them.

There is nothing new about a provision like this. I am indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, among others, for drawing my attention to Section 2 of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993. We are right here in this very field. Nothing in the Immigration Rules shall lay down any practice which would be contrary to the convention. This is all that we are asking for here. Let us have that principle set out in the Bill in the form of this amendment.

Viscount Hailsham Portrait Viscount Hailsham (Con)
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My Lords, those who heard the Minister outline the position of the Government earlier today with regard to the plight of Ukrainians must have been dismayed by his response. None the less, I make no personal criticism of him at all.

Some of us have in mind the cavalier attitude of Mr Johnson to treaties that he recently signed, such as the Northern Ireland protocol. When I consider many of the suggestions which come out of the Home Office as to how to deter migrants from coming to this country, I have no confidence that this Government will always comply with the letter—far less the spirit—of the convention. I do not suppose that the new clause proposed by Amendment 24 will be a complete remedy. However, it is a very useful statement of an important principle, and I shall vote for it.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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In so far as the court has been told by Parliament that it can do that in the 1993 Act when it comes to the Immigration Rules, the court can do so. But, with the greatest respect, the courts interpret legislation; they are not there to go behind legislation with an autonomous meaning, so far as the courts are concerned, of what the refugee convention means. What the convention means is a matter for the member states, each interpreting it under the terms of the Vienna convention. With respect, it is not for the courts to second-guess Parliament’s interpretation of the UK’s obligations under the refugee convention.

Lord Judge Portrait Lord Judge (CB)
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My Lords, faced with the problems to which Part 2 gives rise, we end up, on the basis of the Minister’s response, with the situation in which the court will look at provisions that we say contravene the convention and say, “Ah, Parliament has said that this provision must apply. Although it contravenes the convention, it must still be applied.” The court must do so, notwithstanding that the intention of the Government was that the provision should be compliant.

We are going around in circles. We are back to “Oh, yes, it is” and “Oh, no, it isn’t”, and that is no way for us to be on a measure of such crucial importance to many people suffering from the consequences of persecution, war, famine and so many things that afflict other nations and with which fortunately we are not afflicted. The House really ought to decide this. I ask the House to decide and tell us what its decision is.