Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda deportation plan is “leading the nation down a damaging path”, the Archbishop of Canterbury has warned.
In a withering rebuke to the scheme to send asylum seekers who cross the Channel in small boats on a one-way flight to Kigali, the Most Rev Justin Welby accused the Government of outsourcing the country’s “legal and moral responsibilities”.
The top Anglican cleric also argued “a pick-and-choose approach to international law” undermined the UK’s global standing as he signalled he may seek to block the policy at a later date.
The archbishop was was among some 66 members of the House of Lords listed to speak during the second reading debate of the Government’s Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill.
The controversial draft legislation seeks to address the legal challenges which have dogged the plan and gives ministers the power to ignore emergency injunctions.
Speaking during the debate, Mr Welby said: “We can, as a nation, do better than this Bill.
“With this Bill the Government is continuing to seek good objectives in the wrong way, leading the nation down a damaging path.”
He added: “We need a wider strategy for refugee policy which involves international co-operation and which equips us for the far greater migration flows, perhaps 10 times greater in the coming decades, as a result of conflict and climate change and poverty. Instead this Bill offers only ad hoc one-off approaches.
“Rwanda is a country I know well, it is a wonderful country and my complaint is not with Rwanda, nor with its people. It has overcome challenges that this House cannot begin to imagine.
“But this Bill continues, wherever it does it, to outsource our legal and moral responsibilities for refugees and asylum seekers, with other countries far poorer already supporting multitudes more than we are now and to cut back on our aid.”
He said: “The UK should lead internationally as it has in the past, not stand apart.
“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.”
Given the Lords was a revising chamber, Mr Welby said “sadly” he would not back a Liberal Democrat-led move to block the Bill at second reading, although he found the argument made for it “convincing and powerful”.
He pointedly added: “But I think we have to wait until third reading and have done our revising work.”
Labour former home secretary Lord Blunkett said: “This is nothing to do with finding solutions, it is everything to do to virtue signalling, as you might in quotes put it… to a particular part of the electorate and to find scapegoats for Government failure.”
Opening the debate, Tory frontbencher Lord Stewart of Dirleton said: “This Government remains resolute in its commitment to preventing the misuse and evasion of our systems by illegal migrants, stopping these dangerous crossings and addressing the concerns of the British people.
“Operationalising the Rwanda scheme is a key part of the Government’s efforts to deliver this mission.”
He added: “Doing nothing is not an option.”
Labour frontbencher Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede said: “There is a very real problem that needs fixing. This Bill, like its predecessors, will not do that.”
Opposing the legislation, Liberal Democrat Lord German said: “This Bill asks us to believe that black is white; that facts are not facts. It breaches conventions and treaties to which we are signed up. It damages our credibility on the world stage.”
He added: “It offends against the rule of law and fundamentally it treats some of the most vulnerable people in the world, people who are facing persecution, torture and fleeing for their lives as undesirables. And for us on these benches that is unconscionable.”
Mr Sunak’s Safety of Rwanda Bill survived third reading in the Commons after the Prime Minister saw off a rebellion by the Tory right which had sought to toughen the legislation.
In the end just 11 Conservatives voted against the legislation but it faces a bigger test in the Lords, where many members have expressed unease about the plan.
The Prime Minister has urged peers against blocking “the will of the people” by opposing the Bill as he faces an election year having made “stopping the boats” a key pledge of his leadership.
Meanwhile, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has warned the Bill risks the UK breaching its obligations under international law.
It argued the draft legislation “undermines the universality of human rights” and in doing so “could expose people to harm and breaches of their right to life, their rights to be free from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment and their right to effective remedy”.
The number of migrants who made unauthorised Channel crossings of the Channel this year passed 1,000 after more than 300 made the journey at the weekend.
First blood was drawn against the Rwanda policy in the Lords last week, when peers backed by 214 votes to 171 an unprecedented move seeking to delay a treaty with the country which underpins the Government’s plan.
The asylum scheme comes with a £290 million bill but a series of legal challenges has meant no flights have taken off since it was first proposed in 2022, when Boris Johnson was in Number 10.
Under the plan, people who cross the Channel in small boats could be removed to Rwanda rather than being allowed to seek asylum in the UK.
The legislation, along with the recently signed treaty with Kigali, is aimed at ensuring the scheme is legally watertight after the Supreme Court ruling against it last year.