Rishi Sunak’s proposed Rwanda asylum law has cleared its first major hurdle in the House of Lords, but faces a bruising ride as the Archbishop of Canterbury warned it is “leading the nation down a damaging path”.
Justin Welby made a rare intervention into politics by speaking out in the Lords on Monday evening, against the legislation aimed at sending asylum seekers on one-way flights to the African country. The Church of England’s most senior cleric insisted that Britain “can do better than this bill” as he condemned the Sunak’s government’s “pick and choose” approach to international law.
A barrage of criticism was levelled at the government’s Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, during its lengthy second reading debate in the upper chamber, with accusations that it was immoral, repugnant and an attempt to “legislate a lie”.
Mr Sunak has told peers to listen to “the will of the people” as he tries to push his Rwanda scheme through parliament in time to get deportation flights started for the spring.
Only 11 right-wing rebel Tory MPs voted against the “weak” legislation in the Commons – but it faces a bigger test in the Lords, where many members have expressed unease about the safety of Rwanda.
While the Bill survived a Liberal Democrat-led bid to derail it on Monday, the unelected chamber is certain to seek numerous changes, putting them on a collision course with the Tory administration and an extended tussle between the Commons and Lords during “ping-pong”. Peers voted 206 to 84 against the blocking motion, a majority of 122.
Speaking ahead of the second-reading stage vote, the Archbishop of Canterbury told the Lords: “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,” the faith leader added.
Rev Welby called Rwanda as a “wonderful country”, adding: “My complaint is not with Rwanda, nor with its people – it has overcome challenges that this House cannot begin to imagine.”
But the cross-bench peer insisted that Mr Sunak’s bill would “outsource our legal and moral responsibility for refugees and asylum seekers” when other countries “far poorer than we are already supporting multitudes more than we are now”.
He also argued that “pick and choose approach to international law undermines our global standing and offends against the principle of universality”.
Rev Welby added: “It is damaging for asylum seekers in need of protection, and safe and legal routes. It is damaging for this country’s reputation … It is damaging in respect of constitutional principles and the rule of law.”
The senior Liberal Democrat peer Lord German urged fellow peers to vote down the Rwanda bill at the second reading stage. However, Rev Welby said he would not vote against the government on Monday evening. With the government widely expected to win tonight’s vote, peers are waiting to amend the legislation at the next stage.
First blood was drawn on the bill in the Lords last week, when peers backed by 214 votes to 171 an unprecedented move seeking to delay a treaty with Rwanda which forms part of the government’s plan.
The unelected second chamber backed calls for parliament to not approve the pact until ministers can show the country is safe. However, unlike the Commons – which has the power to delay ratification of a treaty – the Lords can only advise.
The ex-Tory cabinet minister Kenneth Clarke said he could not support the Rwanda bill – warning that its powers to overrule the courts on Rwanda’s safety set a “very dangerous constitutional provision”.
Lord Clarke told peers about “the risks of moving towards an elective dictatorship in this country” – arguing that there ought to be “constitutional limits on any branch of government in a liberal democratic society such as ours”.
And in a scathing speech, former Labour home secretary Lord David Blunkett, said the Tory plan was all about “virtue signalling” to hardline voters and demonising the courts, the Lords and the opposition.
He also pointed out that far-right Italian Giorgia Meloni had a similar plan to deport asylum seekers to African nations. “What sort of county are we?” he asked.
Earlier on Monday, Mr Sunak’s official spokesman said the bill remained the “right thing to do” to tackle people smugglers and deter asylum seekers from crossing the Channel.
“It is also the fair thing to do both for taxpayers and for those individuals seeking to come here through safe and legal routes who see their place jumped by those who can afford to make crossings on small boats,” said the No 10 official.
Meanwhile, 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.
The asylum scheme comes with a £290m, 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 No 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.