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Rishi Sunak's flagship Rwanda bill faces long delay after defeat in House of Lords vote
22 January 2024, 19:54 | Updated: 23 January 2024, 00:38
Rishi Sunak's flagship Rwanda bill has been dealt a blow after the House of Lords voted to delay the controversial legislation.
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Peers inflicted the defeat in a 214-171 vote - a majority of 43 - on Monday evening on a delay motion tabled by Labour peer Lord Goldsmith, chairman of the chamber’s International Agreements Committee.
The unprecedented move will delay a treaty with the East African nation seeking to pave the way for the implementation of the Government's flagship asylum scheme.
“Significant additional legal and practical steps are needed in order to implement the protections the treaty is designed to provide,” Goldsmith told the Lords today.
He continued: “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 judgement about Rwanda is safe.”
The Rwanda bill would stop British courts from blocking flights sending illegal arrivals to east Africa, after the previous version of the plan was stopped by the Supreme Court last year.
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 being deported to Rwanda and then being transferred to a country where they could be at risk.
The House of Lords has a constitutional right to delay the legislation, but will not be able to ultimately surpass the will of the House of Commons, should MP's backing of the bill persist.
Peers have now joined fellow institutions in throwing doubt on the controversial bill, joining the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court who raised concern over its safety and viability last year.
It comes after the prime minister last week urged Lords not to block the "will of the people".
Labour former attorney general Lord Goldsmith said his committee's report "identifies at least ten 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," he 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."
Amid the debate before the vote, 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," Lord Howell added, making reference to the Horizon scandal.
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."
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 later this month on January 29.