Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office
Lord Thomas of Gresford Portrait Lord Thomas of Gresford (LD)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, since he sets the foundations of what I am about to say. I agreed with everything that he said except his conclusion.

This Bill does two things. It creates a legal fiction that Rwanda is a safe country for asylum seekers and it purports to exclude the courts of this country from examining that fiction. Let us first consider the morality of creating a legal fiction that a country is a safe haven for an asylum seeker when in fact, as the Supreme Court has found and this House has agreed, it is not. Is it in accordance with the ethical standards which the British people were once proud to carry across the world to deal with refugees from oppression, or indeed, any person within this jurisdiction, on the basis of a lie—a lie which may put their very lives in danger, not least for the reasons given by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham?

How is that legal fiction, this lie, to be created? By the “judgement of Parliament”. This is a new constitutional concept. It is certainly not a judgment in the legal sense, which requires an impartial tribunal, weighing the evidence and arguments on both sides of an issue and coming to a considered conclusion. How then is the “judgement of Parliament” to be ascertained? By a majority vote? In which case, the upper House of Parliament has determined that, for the moment, Rwanda is not safe. It seems that the Government construe the “judgement of Parliament” as a majority vote in the House of Commons only.

Your Lordships will quickly appreciate that the so-called “judgement of Parliament” is a very different animal from a legal judgment of the Supreme Court. “Judgement” is even spelled differently in the Bill from the conventional spelling of a court judgment. It cannot subsume or supplant the legal judgment of the Supreme Court. In our constitution, under the doctrine of the separation of powers, it cannot usurp the Supreme Court’s function.

Sir Winston Churchill championed the ultimate sovereignty of law in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, where he wrote, in volume 2, page 169:

“The underlying idea of the sovereignty of law, long in existence in feudal custom, was raised into a doctrine for the national state. When in subsequent ages the state, swollen with its own authority, has attempted to ride roughshod over the rights or liberties of the subject, it is to this doctrine that appeal has again and again been made, and never, as yet, without success”.

Finally on this point, this legal fiction could exist only in domestic law. It has no effect on international law, international courts and United Nations institutions, not least the European Court of Human Rights. “International law? Poof!” say the uber Tories. I remind them that we are currently relying on the doctrine of self-defence in international law in bombing the Houthis.

Turning to the second issue, the denial of access to our courts:

“To none will we sell, to none will we deny, to none will we delay justice and right”.

That is just Magna Carta, chapter 40.

In 1769, James Somerset, born in Benin, was brought to England by a customs officer who had purchased him in a Virginian slave market. Two years later he escaped his master, who pursued him and imprisoned him on a ship bound for Jamaica. He was to be sold there to labour in a plantation. He was not denied access to the court of King’s Bench in habeas corpus proceedings. Lord Mansfield ordered his release. Slavery was odious, not recognised in the pure air of England. That was a judicial decision; it was another 60 years before Parliament abolished slavery in the British colonies.

The “judgement of Parliament” is a novel concept, introduced into the Bill, I suggest, to avoid judicial review. After all, how would you judicially review Parliament as a body? Whose clever, tricksy idea was that? Habeas corpus disappears as the major protector of the liberties of all within the jurisdiction of this country, whether foreign-born slave like Mr Somerset, or an asylum seeker. Trashing our legal obligations in international law, the Bill is odious and an affront to the 800 years of the common law of these islands, its values and traditions. The Bill must go no further.