First blood has been drawn by peers over Rishi Sunak’s controversial Rwanda deportation plan.
Inflicting a defeat against the Government, the House of Lords backed by 214 votes to 171, majority 43, an unprecedented move seeking to delay a treaty with the east African nation that paves the way for the divisive asylum scheme.
The unelected chamber supported a call by the Lords International Agreements Committee (IAC) that Parliament should not ratify the pact until ministers can show Rwanda is safe.
The Government agreed the legally-binding treaty with Kigali in December, saying it addressed concerns raised by the Supreme Court about the possibility of asylum seekers deported to Rwanda then being transferred to a country where they could be at risk.
But the cross-party committee said promised safeguards in the agreement are “incomplete” and must be implemented before it can be endorsed.
Unlike the Commons which has the power to delay ratification of a treaty, the Lords can only advise.
However, ignoring the demand by peers could later be used in a legal challenge against the Government.
The treaty underpins the Government’s Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill which compels judges to regard the country as a secure haven.
The initial blow delivered by peers, uneasy over the stalled deportation plan to put some asylum seekers on a one-way flight to Africa, signals a rough ride for the legislation, despite the Prime Minister urging the Upper House not to block the “will of the people”.
Labour former attorney general Lord Goldsmith, who chairs the IAC, said: “In total our report identifies at least 10 sets of issues where on the basis of the Government’s evidence significant additional legal and practical steps are needed in order to implement the protections the treaty is designed to provide. The difficulty is that the Government has already presented a Bill to Parliament asking it to make a judgment that Rwanda is safe now.”
Lord Goldsmith added: “We are not saying the treaty should never be ratified but we are saying that Parliament should have the opportunity to scrutinise the treaty and its implementing measures in full before it makes a judgment about whether Rwanda is safe.”
But Conservative former Cabinet minister Lord Howell of Guildford said: “What does safe mean? It is an entirely subjective concept and always will be.
“In our own judicial system, is that safe? I don’t know. I am not sure all our postmasters would agree about the safety of our own judicial system.”
Govt defeated in @UKHouseofLords on Rwanda Bill Treaty. Lords days it should not be approved at this time. But Government is desperate and will push ahead. We should stop them. pic.twitter.com/sLcKaTYsgg
— Chris Rennard 🔶💙🇺🇦 (@LordRennard) January 22, 2024
This was a reference to the hundreds of branch managers in the UK wrongly convicted because of a faulty accounting IT system in one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British legal history.
Referring to comments by Mr Sunak, Labour former shadow attorney general Baroness Chakrabarti said: “I would suggest that instead of there being this sort of telepathic connection between any individual leader and the will of the people, in a constitutional democracy… it is Parliament that will reflect, to the best of its ability, the will of the people, and certainly represent people in this country, but also champion the rule of law.”
Liberal Democrat Lord Razzall said: “If we go back to the beginning, the whole reason for the proposal to send people to Rwanda was that it was going to be such a hellhole that nobody would want to get on a boat if they thought they were going to go to Rwanda.
“The dilemma the Government now faces is that, because of the Supreme Court, they have to demonstrate what a wonderful, safe place Rwanda is. I wonder whether this might just be a moment for them to reflect on the purpose of their policy.”
Responding, Home Office minister Lord Sharpe of Epsom said: “The Rwanda partnership was created to enhance the UK’s efforts to tackle illegal migration which is costly to the British taxpayer and imperils the lives of those making highly dangerous journeys.”
We must sack all current members of the House of Lords. It is beyond parody.
— Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) January 22, 2024
He faced jeers as he said: “This begs the question is Labour using the House of Lords to try to frustrate our plan to stop the boats?”
Last week the Prime Minister urged the opposition in the House of Lords to get on board and do the right thing to stop the boats.
“You have a choice tonight – push this amendment to try to obstruct an effective deterrent or back down and let this treaty pass.”
The second reading debate on the Rwanda Bill is due to be held in the Lords on January 29.