Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office
Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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My Lords, after such a thorough Committee, which showed this House—if not the Government or their flagship policy—in the best light, I will be brief and urge others to do the same. This way, those seeking important votes will avoid self-harming delay and highlight any deliberate filibustering by others.

My amendments in this group, shared with the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale of Richmond, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, would add the purpose of compliance with the international and domestic rule of law to deterrence in Clause 1. They 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. I have revised my approach after the suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Lympne, that initial decisions be in Parliament’s accountable hands, rather than those of others. While still finding the forced transportation of human cargo completely repugnant, I note my noble friend Lord Blunkett’s distinction between offshoring and offloading by ensuring that those granted asylum be returned to the UK under the treaty.

These are wholly reasonable amendments, but if the Government still cannot accept them, I will urge my noble friend Lord Coaker to test the opinion of the House on his single requirement, respecting the rule of law, which is surely completely incontrovertible for those, such as the Prime Minister, who now claim to be liberal patriots. That was two minutes. I beg to move.

Viscount Hailsham Portrait Viscount Hailsham (Con)
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My Lords, I begin by saying how much I regret the death of my noble friend Lord Cormack. He was a great friend of mine and a close colleague for more than 40 years in the House of Commons and here. He was also a very close Lincolnshire neighbour, and he rendered great service to the city and county. He was a very considerable parliamentarian, and I know that he intended to participate in these debates. He would have made a significant contribution. His is a very great loss.

I hope I will be forgiven if I remind your Lordships that, for the reasons I expressed at Second Reading and in Committee, I am a root and branch opponent of the Bill. In my view, many of its provisions are objectionable in principle. Moreover, I do not think it will achieve its intended policy objective: to deter illegal migration across the channel.

However, I recognise that the Government are determined to have this Bill, so our purpose at this stage should be to address some of its more objectionable characteristics. It is in this spirit that I address the amendments in this group and adopt the approach of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. I can and I will support any of the substantive amendments included in this group that are moved to a Division. However, I especially commend to your Lordships Amendment 3 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, which I have signed.

One of the Bill’s great deficiencies is that it purports to describe Rwanda as presently a safe country when both the Supreme Court and this House have decided otherwise. The Government rely on the treaty as being sufficient evidence of present safety. In my view, that is clearly not a sustainable position. It is possible that Rwanda will become a safe country—that is, when the treaty is ratified, when its provisions have been implemented, when the infrastructure is in place and working, and if the country’s culture has changed. That may all happen in the future; it has not happened yet. On any view, it will require assessment.

Proposed new subsections (1B) and (1C) in the noble Baroness’s Amendment 3 are designed to provide a mechanism for such an assessment. The amendment provides that the initiative lies with the Secretary of State. That takes account of the observations my noble friend Lord Howard of Lympne made at Second Reading, when he stressed the importance of proper democratic accountability. The amendment ensures just that. I commend Amendment 3 to the House. However, if others in this group are the subject of Divisions, I shall support them.

Baroness D'Souza Portrait Baroness D’Souza (CB)
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My Lords, I will speak to my Amendments 10 and 43 in this group. I remain concerned about the potential constitutional fallout from this Bill, despite what my noble friend Lord Hannay has referred to as a “sterile” issue. There must be a reference to its remarkable impact on vital constitutional elements, such as the rule of law, the separation of powers and parliamentary sovereignty. Although these are probing amendments, such is the gravity of these possible consequences that they surely deserve to be noted, if not in the Bill then at least in the record of its passage.

The Supreme Court has stated unequivocally in a former judgment:

“The courts will treat with particular suspicion … any attempt to subvert the rule of law by removing governmental action affecting the rights of the individual from all judicial scrutiny”.

In this Bill, the Government are doing just this by writing into law a demonstrably false statement—that Rwanda is a safe country to receive asylum seekers—thereby forcing all courts to treat Rwanda as a safe country despite clear findings of fact.

It is clear that the Bill subverts the rule of law, the key elements of which are abiding by international law, equality before the law, respect for fundamental human rights and guaranteeing access to the courts. These rights are negated by this Bill, and as such it is a legal fiction. The longer-term impacts might be considerable—for example, could the Supreme Court in future rule, with any authority, a Prorogation unlawful?

The Bill in its present form enjoins all relevant courts and officials to deem Rwanda a safe country and specifically disallows any rational challenge by the courts. In Committee the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Nottingham, expressed the hope that there will be a challenge, thereby enabling the Supreme Court to strike the Bill down as unconstitutional. Should this happen, a review of the Bill’s impact on the rule of law in the UK would prove invaluable evidence.

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Lord Lilley Portrait Lord Lilley (Con)
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I cannot say what today’s Supreme Court would do, but the supreme courts of our country in those days did entertain a challenge. Greece, in particular, was not thought to be safe, and presumably they would not think now that France is safe. They upheld the right of the Executive to make those decisions and did not try to supersede them or consider evidence as to whether the accusations were correct.

Viscount Hailsham Portrait Viscount Hailsham (Con)
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This is a different situation. Here we have the expression of opinion by the Supreme Court being displaced by the Government through legislation.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I do not think it is relevant to cite France. The fact is that this country has a great reputation for upholding the rule of law and international law, and we play a great part across the world. This Bill is threatening that reputation and that role. France does not have that reputation or role, in my opinion.

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Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a privilege to follow my noble friend Lord Blunkett. I apologise to your Lordships for my mistakes earlier on, with standing up at the wrong time.

I have Amendment 19 in this group, with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale of Richmond, the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. However, I commend all other amendments, in particular the simple and clear amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich. While we suggested a rebuttable presumption, his formulation—that a finding of safety may be displaced by “credible evidence to the contrary”—is clearer and even more attractive. Therefore, I urge him, as he has indicated, to press his amendment to a vote.

In concluding, I merely flag, as a sort of advert for Wednesday, that it is very important that as many noble Lords as possible can be here early on Wednesday to support Amendment 33, which introduces a new Clause 4. That will be debated and pressed then, because without that amendment, which restores the general jurisdiction of the courts, other amendments, even these ones, could well be illusory. The purpose, as I say, is to restore the jurisdiction of courts and tribunals to decide what the facts are, based on the evidence before them, including to invoke this rebuttable presumption. That is what our courts are for, despite all the dancing we heard before about novel interpretations of the rule of law. Our courts are admired for that jurisdiction all over the world. That is what we mean by the rule of law.

Viscount Hailsham Portrait Viscount Hailsham (Con)
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My Lords, I rise briefly to support what the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, has said, as well as, of course, the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti; I signed her Amendment 19. This House should try to insist that, if the facts change, a mechanism is provided to the courts to reassess the situation. Anything else is profoundly unjust. Therefore, if the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, moves his amendment, I will support him.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab)
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My Lords, as well as supporting the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, I rise to speak to Amendment 16, which seeks to minimise the risk of torture arising from the Bill and to safeguard torture survivors. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and my noble friend Lord Cashman for their support. They will speak to the first part of the amendment, while I will focus on the second. We brought it back because of our dissatisfaction with the response from the Minister in Committee. We hope that we might do better now, given the existential importance of torture, which represents one of the most serious of human rights violations.

We know from the work of organisations such as Freedom from Torture and Redress, whose help I am grateful for, that a good number of the asylum seekers in line to be sent to Rwanda will have survived torture. We also know, including from a recent report from the Mental Health Foundation, of the high incidence of mental health difficulties among asylum seekers, the risk of which is increased by traumatic experiences such as torture. These difficulties can only be exacerbated by removal to Rwanda.

In Committee, the Minister pointed out that an individual could challenge removal on the grounds of their “individual circumstances”. But Freedom from Torture warns that providing, in the time available, the necessary “compelling evidence” to meet the exceptionally high bar set by the test means that this does not offer torture survivors an effective safeguard. Indeed, the Minister himself admitted that successful claims on this basis are expected to be “rare”. That might have implications for some other amendments.

In response to my questioning about what mental health support will be available to torture survivors in Rwanda, the Minister referred me to Article 13 of the treaty, but that refers only to the special needs of victims of modern slavery or human trafficking. I can find no reference to the needs of torture survivors.

My noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws interjected that the mental health situation in Rwanda is very poor, with high levels of mental illness but very few suitably trained medical professionals. Since then, I have been referred to WHO’s 2020 mental health profile for Rwanda. This confirms the low level of provision and seems to show that there are no out-patient mental health facilities. If this continues to be the case, would traumatised torture survivors have to be admitted to a mental health unit to obtain any support? As was noted in Committee, civil society remains weak and therefore is unlikely to be able to step in.

More recently, last October, a press release from Interpeace, while commending the efforts that the Rwandan Government have made in this area, warns that

“the country still faces challenges such as the scale of mental health needs that outstrips the capacity of available professionals, low awareness and knowledge of mental health issues”

and “poor mental health infrastructure”.

From the Minister’s responses, it would appear that the Government simply do not know what support will be available and have made no attempt to find out, yet they are happy to condemn this highly vulnerable group to a life in a country that, with the best will in the world, is ill placed to provide that support. Of course, ideally, I would want the Government to accept the case for not sending torture survivors to Rwanda. At the very minimum, I ask the Minister to take this issue back to the Home Office—although I am not quite sure which Minister will respond—and give an undertaking that he will ask his colleagues to talk to the Rwandan Government about support for torture survivors and, if necessary, provide the necessary resources to ensure that support is available, perhaps earmarking part of the enormous sum to be paid to Rwanda identified by the NAO.