The Archbishop of Canterbury has again slammed the government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, telling the House of Lords: “We can as a nation do better than this bill.”
Speaking in the upper chamber, the Most Rev Justin Welby said the government was “continuing to seek good objectives in the wrong way”, leading the country down a “damaging path” by insisting on pushing forward with its legislation.
And he accused ministers of seeking to “outsource our legal and moral responsibilities for refugees and asylum seekers”.
MPs approved the Rwanda bill earlier this month, which aims to deport asylum seekers coming to the UK on small boats to the African nation as a deterrent from making Channel crossings.
But Rishi Sunak faced a backlash from his own benches, with around 60 Tory rebels voting to toughen up the law and 11 of his MPs voting the whole bill down.
Now it is facing its next parliamentary hurdle with the scrutiny of peers, many of whom have already publicly spoken out against the bill – especially around its ability to disapply human rights law and to ignore rulings made by the European Court of Human Rights to halt deportation flights.
The plan has already faced its first defeat in the upper chamber, after Lords voted against the ratification of the UK’s new treaty with the country – part of the government’s plan to address the fears of the Supreme Court, who ruled the scheme unlawful late last year.
The bill covering the overall plan is expected to pass its second reading this evening, mostly due to a convention for the unelected chamber not to create barriers to legislation from elected MPs at this stage.
But there is a plot by Liberal Democrat peers – who total 80 in the Lords – to ignore the practice and vote against it anyway.
And it is not stopping prominent figures in the Lords from speaking out against the plan.
Mr Welby, who as one of the 26 bishops of the Church of England is allowed to sit in the Lords, said the Rwanda bill “obscures the truth that all people, asylum seekers included, are of great value”.
He added: “It is damaging for asylum seekers in need of protection and safe and legal routes to be heard. It is damaging for this country’s reputation… It is damaging in respect of constitutional principles and the rule of law.
“And most of all, my lords, it is damaging for our nation’s unity in a time when the greatest issues of war, peace, defence and security need us to be united.”
Mr Welby said the “right way forward though is to enable the unity on ends to be translated into a unity on means”, adding: “The challenge of migration is… long term and global, and so must our response be.
“We need a wider strategy… for refugee policy which involves international cooperation and 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.”
While Mr Welby said he would not vote against the bill at second reading, he and his spiritual colleagues take their “revising role seriously”.
Welby preaches to the converted
To a majority of members of the House of Lords, the government’s Rwanda bill is an unholy abomination.
Last week, their lordships voted by 214 votes to 171, a majority of 43, to delay ratification of the Rwanda treaty until safeguards have been implemented.
And in his speech during the second reading debate on the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, Mr Welby accused Rishi Sunak of a “pick and choose approach” to international law.
The archbishop began his speech by telling peers the heart of the Christian tradition was that strangers were welcomed.
“Jesus said ‘I was a stranger and you invited me in’,” he said.
And there were loud cries of “hear, hear!” from around the Lords’ chamber when the Archbishop declared: “We can as a nation do better than this bill.”
No-one could accuse the archbishop of contradicting himself on this issue. He led opposition in the Lords to the Illegal Migration Bill, which resulted in a series of defeats for the government.
He has previously described the Rwanda policy as “against the judgement of God” and he served notice in this debate that he’s prepared to play a full part in their lordships’ attempts to pull the Rwanda bill apart in the coming weeks.
Rishi Sunak has urged peers not to block “the will of the people”.
But Lord Welby’s argument, essentially, is that the will of God trumps the will of the people. And many of their lordships appear to agree.
Speaking for the government, Tory minister and Advocate General for Scotland, Lord Dirleton stood by the bill, saying it was a “shared objective” of peers to “stop the boats” and “doing nothing is not an option”.
He said: “There is nothing generous about letting the status quo continue, that would only serve the deplorable people smugglers to facilitate these dangerous crossings.
“It would only put more lives at risk and it would continue to strain our communities and our public services.”
But there were jeers from some peers when Lord Dirleton claimed the new legislation made it clear Rwanda was “a safe country”, and further unsettled noises when he said, while “novel”, the provisions in the bill could be implemented “in line with both our domestic law and our international obligations”.
Labour’s shadow minister, Lord Ponsonby, outlined his party’s opposition to the bill, telling peers: “This is the third time in as many years that the government has asked this house to consider legislation to stop boat journeys and to reform the asylum system.
“The third year of being presented with increasingly rushed, unworkable and inhumane solutions to the problem of small boats and asylum.”
But despite Labour’s issues – especially over the bill “threatening the UK’s compliance with international law” – Labour said it would not join the Lib Dems in voting it down at this stage.
However, the peer leading the plan to vote down the bill today, former leader of the Welsh Lib Dems, Lord German, said: “The treatment of asylum seekers and refugees… is completely contrary to how we should be acting as a country with a reputation for protecting individuals rights and freedoms where the rule of law is upheld.
“It was the settled will of this house last week that the treaty cannot yet by ratified, so how can this house consent to a bill which relies on that treaty having the approval of this house?”