Nationality and Borders Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office
Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP)
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The Greens support the amendment too.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait The Paliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Wolfson of Tredegar) (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, for proposing the new clause. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said that it was a short one; I respectfully agree, and hope that I can be brief in response without any discourtesy to the noble and learned Lord or, indeed, the other proposers of the clause. One point in his speech on which I think the whole House agreed was when he reminded us that, whatever the question, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, will always be able to think of an answer.

Turning to the subject matter of the amendment and the proposed new clause, I first underline what was said by my noble friend Lady Williams of Trafford as to the Government’s commitment to their international legal obligations flowing from the refugee convention. Not only is it our intention to continue to comply with all of the legal obligations under that convention but we consider that this legislation does precisely that.

Our starting point is that the provisions of the Bill are compliant with the refugee convention but, none the less, the new clause is not something that I can support. Let me set out why.

The refugee convention, as I have said before, and effectively by design, leaves certain terms and concepts open to a degree of interpretation. That is an important feature of international instruments such as the refugee convention, allowing it not only to stand the test of time—some might say that it could now usefully be reviewed, but that is a separate point—but, more importantly, to be applied in and across many jurisdictions with differing legal systems. Necessarily, therefore, there is then a need to ascribe meaning to the terms of the convention at a domestic level. That meaning is determined by each signatory to the refugee convention in accordance with the principles of the Vienna convention, taking a good faith interpretation in accordance with the ordinary meaning of the language used in the convention.

Against that background, I suggest that it is absolutely right that Parliament may pass legislation setting out how the UK interprets the refugee convention and the UK’s obligations under it. Having a clear framework of definitions, and setting out unambiguously the key principles, promotes clarity and consistency in how decisions are made; as I have said in previous debates, that is a desirable approach. The mischief that I see in this amendment is that it would risk undermining the clarity and certainty that we are trying to create by effectively giving the courts a chance to look behind the interpretation agreed by Parliament in primary legislation when that interpretation is then applied through policy and subsequent decisions.

On the one hand, we want to give the pen to Parliament, so to speak, to set out a clear understanding and interpretation of the convention; Part 2 of the Bill is very clear as to our intentions in this respect. However, I suggest that this amendment would afford the courts an opportunity to come to a different understanding when looking at the policies and practices which put that system into effect. Of course, I accept that it will be for the courts to interpret the legislation once enacted, and I do not disagree that the courts have a role in overseeing whether policies or decisions comply with the interpretation of the convention as set out in the Bill; that is a given. But it is Parliament’s interpretation that is key here. It is not for the court to set out its own, potentially conflicting interpretation of the refugee convention and the obligations under it.

Therefore, far from creating a certain and consistent approach, this promotes uncertainty with policies and decisions being potentially judged against differing interpretations. If we are content, as I suggest we should be, that Parliament is legislating in compliance with the approach open to all state parties under the Vienna convention—that is, affording a good faith interpretation to the refugee convention—then this clause is not only unnecessary but promotes confusion and uncertainty for all those seeking to apply to, and comply with, the asylum system.

It would also be unusual to put in primary legislation the statement that Parliament, when legislating, is complying with its international obligations. International conventions cover a wide area of legislation, and if we did so here it could create questions as to why we did not do so in other statutes and why other statutes do not provide the same assurances.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, as alerted by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, mentioned Section 2 of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993. That already sets out the primacy of the refugee convention in domestic law. I will repeat what it says:

“Nothing in the immigration rules (within the meaning of the 1971 Act) shall lay down any practice which would be contrary to the Convention.”

Accordingly, if the aim of this proposed new clause is that the policies implemented under Part 2 of this Bill through the rules or connected guidance are meant to be compatible, and not incompatible, with the refugee convention, as interpreted by Parliament in this Bill, that can already be challenged by way of Section 2 of the 1993 Act. Our policies and decision-making will continue to be made in accordance with the Immigration Rules or published guidance.

What, therefore, would this proposed new clause add? My concern is that it adds a means for the court to question the interpretation given by Parliament to the refugee convention. I suggest respectfully that this would be contrary to a fundamental purpose of this Bill: for Parliament to define the nature of our obligations under the refugee convention while remaining compliant with those obligations. The proposed new clause potentially leaves the nature of obligations and terms under the convention open to the interpretation of the courts, removing the certainty that we are trying to achieve.

To put it in two sentences, if the aim is to make sure that the Immigration Rules and guidance are compliant with the refugee convention, that is already done under the 1993 Act. If the aim is any more than that, I respectfully suggest that it trespasses on a fundamental purpose of this Bill: that Parliament, and not the courts, should interpret how the UK implements the refugee convention. For those reasons, I respectfully invite the noble and learned Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Portrait Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood (CB)
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Before the noble Lord sits down, do I understand that it is the Minister’s intention that, if this Bill is passed in its present form, in future no court shall look behind its provisions and consider what, under the convention and with the advice of UNHCR, its proper application and interpretation are? Is that the Minister’s intention?

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.