April 13, 2024

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A new Lords battle looms over amendments to the Rwanda Bill

A new Lords battle looms over amendments to the Rwanda Bill

  • Written by Jennifer McKernan and Paul Seddon
  • BBC political correspondents

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is on a trip to Dover to promote the Stop the Boats policy

The government's Rwandan deportation bill could face further delays, after Labor pledged to try to change it again in the House of Lords.

On Monday, MPs voted against 10 amendments to the bill proposed by the House of Lords earlier this month.

But Labor peers will try to reintroduce five or six of the proposed changes when the bill returns to the Lords on Wednesday, the BBC was told.

This means the bill may not become law until after Parliament's Easter recess.

This could threaten Downing Street's ambition to launch the first flights to the East African country before June.

The proposed law aims to ensure the UK can deport asylum seekers to Rwanda by declaring it a safe place, after the High Court ruled last year that it could lead to human rights abuses.

Earlier this month, peers added changes to the bill to make it easier for judges to challenge that, and to ensure “full implementation” of the treaty underpinning deportations before flights take off.

These proposals were rejected in a series of votes on Monday evening, with the government's majority ranging between 57 and 78 seats.

The bill will now return to the Lords on Wednesday in a process known as “ping-pong”, where MPs and their peers will try to agree on the final wording, as the bill is debated between both houses of Parliament.

Labor has indicated that its peers will not seek to block the bill from being passed into law in full.

However, the party will order them to try to reintroduce amendments designed to prevent flights taking off until the UK gets further assurances that Rwanda is a safe country.

If they fail, the bill could become law by the end of this week. But if they succeed, the bill will have to return to the House of Commons again.

“Frustration and delay”

Another vote will likely have to wait until MPs return from Easter recess on April 15, which could delay any flights for several weeks, unless the government agrees a Commons schedule to allow a vote next week.

Labor says each relay would cost as much as sending six people into space.

Michael Tomlinson, the Home Secretary, told the House of Commons on Monday that the Rwanda Safety (Asylum and Immigration) Bill was a “key component” of protecting the UK’s borders.

He said that the draft law does not conflict with the government's international obligations.

Tomlinson also criticized “systematic legal challenges” which he said continued to “frustrate and delay” removals.

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Legal challenges led to the first flight to Rwanda being canceled shortly before take-off in June 2022

During the vote on Monday, Labour's Stephen Kinnock backed all of the Lords' amendments to the bill, and said peers were doing their “patriotic duty” by scrutinizing the bills.

The shadow Home Office secretary said the government must give “due regard” to the High Court ruling, and claimed Conservative MPs were pushing through “ridiculous legislation” that “quite frankly turns our institutions into a laughing stock”.

Labor MP Neil Coyle asked whether Mr Tomlinson was aware of findings by the National Audit Office showing the scheme could cost taxpayers nearly £2 million for each of the first 300 asylum seekers sent to Rwanda.

“Does the Minister know that Virgin Galactic can send six people into space for less than what this government wants to spend to send one person to Rwanda?” He said.

“Isn't it time to rethink this absurd and costly policy?”

A Virgin Galactic flight to the edge of space for six people cost £2.14 million last summer.

Tory MP Richard Graham responded that critics of the cost “completely miss the point” that it would act as a “huge disincentive” for those who want to enter the UK for no real reason.

However, Robert Buckland, the former justice secretary, was one of the few Conservative rebels to back some of the Lords' amendments, saying he was concerned about “creating legal friction” over whether Rwanda was and remains a safe destination.

Sir Robert was also keen to stress his support for an amendment that would exempt those who assisted the British armed forces, such as Afghan translators, from deportation to Rwanda.

He said: “I expect the government to be very sensible and sensitive to the position of Afghan refugees and future refugees and not put them in this scheme, and it seems to me that it will lose nothing by adding this particular entry.”

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