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UK-Rwanda Asylum Partnership Arrangement

Volume 821: debated on Monday 25 April 2022

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why the UK-Rwanda asylum partnership arrangement was concluded by a Memorandum of Understanding and was not therefore subject to parliamentary scrutiny requirements under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.

My Lords, the UK has entered into a memorandum of understanding with Rwanda, which has now been published on GOV.UK, for the provision of an asylum partnership arrangement and to address the shared challenge of illegal migration. The duty to lay before Parliament under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 applies only to treaties. However, the safety, security and dignity of and respect for those relocated is assured through the agreement and will be subject to monitoring. We comply fully with our legal and international obligations.

The agreement will not be a treaty and it will not be enforceable. Given that the deal would end the Government’s legal obligation to certain refugee claimants and therefore reduce their rights, surely such a significant international agreement should be disclosed, debated and agreed by Parliament. Why have the Government tried to slip this agreement out as a memorandum of understanding, hindering Parliament’s ability to scrutinise it adequately? Does the Minister accept that important MoUs such as this with Rwanda that affect human rights should be routinely disclosed and debated by Parliament under the terms of the Ponsonby rule?

My Lords, as your Lordships’ House does, there will be ample opportunity to discuss the aspects of this agreement. It complies with our international and other obligations. There will be ongoing monitoring of the agreement, and there is nothing in the United Nations refugee convention that prevents this happening.

Does my noble friend confirm that, in the face of legal challenge, the Government have withdrawn their turnabout policies? Does this not suggest that the legal advice from the Home Office that the Rwanda policy accords with our international obligations should be treated with a degree of caution?

My Lords, this provision has been in place since 1999. I do not know if it has been challenged before, but it is certainly a long-standing provision that we think meets our international obligations.

My Lords, the Government have clauses in the Nationality and Borders Bill to enable offshoring, which this House continues to oppose. If this legislation is necessary, why have the Government signed a memorandum with Rwanda before Parliament has approved it? If it is not necessary, why did the Government put it in the Bill in the first place?

I think I have explained the provisions in the Bill. They are underpinned by legislation going back over 20 years but, as I explained to the House during the passage of the Bill, it is the certification process that is now in play in the Bill.

If, as they say, the Government see the need for new and innovative means of dealing with the migration crisis now, did they have any contact with any of the other signatories to the refugee convention about these new and innovative methods before taking action on their own?

No, absolutely not. This Bill has been going through both Houses of Parliament for some time. I am sure that noble Lords have observed that people are dying at sea because of the actions of criminals facilitating journeys to the UK.

My Lords, are the Government accountable to Parliament or not? If they are, why should an issue as important as this, the deporting of asylum seekers to a third country, not be subject to an affirmative vote in each House of Parliament?

My Lords, I am just going on what has been the convention over many years. Usually, the CRaG Act process that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, talked about is for treaties.

My Lords, first, why an MoU and not a treaty? I did not hear the answer to that. Secondly, why do the Government seek public interest immunity to protect the secrecy of the pushbacks policy and the fact that the policy could never have been used against asylum seekers? Finally, we hear from parts of the press that the Home Secretary thinks that criticism of the Rwandan deal is xenophobic. Therefore, can the Minister comment on the US State Department’s report on Rwanda of just last year? It reported significant human rights issues, including credible reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings by the Government, forced disappearance by the Government, torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment by the Government, and 10 other violations of that magnitude.

My Lords, I acknowledge the US country report last year on Rwanda. Our own country policy and information team carried out an assessment on safety in Rwanda before we entered an agreement. That report is expected to be completed in the near future. I cannot remember the other questions that the noble Baroness asked because it was quite a long question.

My Lords, Section 25 of the CRaG Act defines the meaning of “treaty” and says that it is a “written agreement … between States”, as long as it is “binding under international law”. Given that the Minister has said that this is a written agreement between states, is she suggesting that the agreement with Rwanda is not binding in international law?

My Lords, it is an agreement which both parties have agreed to be bound by. I will leave it to greater heads to unpick the meaning of that.

I have now remembered one of the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, which was, “why not a treaty?” I do not know why, but it seems that it was appropriate to have an MoU. I am very happy to write to noble Lords with further detail on that. I hope that they will appreciate that I have not had much notice of this Question and am not going to be blag my way through it; I will write to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, Amnesty International’s latest annual report sets out that, in Rwanda:

“Violations of the rights to a fair trial, freedom of expression and privacy continued, alongside enforced disappearances, allegations of torture and excessive use of force.”

This came following the UK Government’s own concerns, raised in July 2021 at the UN Human Rights Council. In the context of these human rights concerns in respect of Rwanda, it is deeply worrying that the UK Government have now decided that it is a safe third country to which they can offshore asylum seekers. Can the Minister please set out how these conflicting descriptions of Rwanda’s human rights situation have been reconciled?

Obviously, Rwanda has come on a very upward, positive trajectory since the genocide way back when. It is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world; it has a great equality record at the moment—certainly in its parliament —and it houses 130,000 asylum seekers. It also engages with both the EU and the UNHCR in placing asylum seekers.

My Lords, is not the real reason that the Minister is facing such anger in this Chamber today that, as everyone knows, the Government did it as a memorandum of understanding—not as a treaty—because they knew that the Rwanda deal would be extremely controversial, and that it would be raised by a number of noble Lords across this Chamber? It is of such significance that it should have been fully debated and discussed in both Chambers. Has it not come to something when a former Conservative Prime Minister stands up and says that this policy would have been found wanting on the grounds of legality, practicality, and efficacy? If the Minister will not listen to noble Lords in here, will she listen to the former Prime Minister? That is why people are so angry: there is a need for proper discussion and not for the Government to find some way of by-passing the process to slip through controversial policies.

My Lords, I do not think that anyone would accuse me of trying to stifle debate or of not trying to answer noble Lords’ questions. I do try to answer them and, if I cannot, I will get back to them. As I said earlier, we are abiding by our international obligations. The EU and the UNHCR work with Rwanda to relocate refugees there.

My Lords, further to the question of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, I do not think that my noble friend has responded to that point. A memorandum of understanding can be defined as a treaty under CRaG if it is a written agreement between states and it is binding in international law. Why does the Minister not say that the Government will lay this memorandum of understanding before Parliament under CRaG?

Will the Minister comment on another possible reason, in addition to the one advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for this not being a treaty? If it were a treaty, it would have to be registered at the United Nations, and there might be some embarrassment in seeking to register a memorandum of understanding governing an arrangement that is clearly totally inconsistent with the refugee convention, for which the United Nations is responsible. Can the Minister tell us in addition, since the agreement says that it is not justiciable in international law, how is it to be justiciable?

My Lords, I am sure that people will find ways and means of doing that should they be motivated to do so. I go back to the point about both the EU and UNHCR engaging with Rwanda on the relocation of asylum seekers and refugees.

My Lords, the Minister said that there would be ample opportunity to debate this issue. We do not have any ample opportunity; what assurance can we have? There are so many questions of detail to which we do not know the answer. It is just a con trick by the Government, and they should come clean on the details before they remove a single person to Rwanda.

My Lords, I am not trying to con anyone. The beauty of your Lordships’ House is that it is self-governing. Debates can be brought to your Lordships’ House for full discussion.

My Lords, as we are struggling to defend democracy and democratic decisions, is it not totally opposed to that to try to sneak through an agreement without it being discussed and decided on in this Parliament? Why are the Government so adamant and reluctant to put such matters to a vote of Parliament?

My Lords, the Prime Minister announced it last week; I do not think that there was an attempt to sneak anything through. The Home Secretary stood in the House of Commons last week and made a Statement about it.

My Lords, my noble friend knows that this is a very controversial area of the Nationality and Borders Bill. I have moved amendments to the Bill, and we have had long debates on this subject. Another Minister indicated that no further legislation would be required to proceed with these arrangements. Can my noble friend confirm that that is the case? Is she saying that the Nationality and Borders Bill is required, or is it the Government’s position that no legislation is required?

My noble friend is right on two counts. First, the provision is in long-standing legislation dating from 1999, 2002 and 2004. Under the Bill, the certification process would not be needed, so essentially the policy could proceed with or without the legislation.

My Lords, the Minister has said that some people will find ways and means to make this agreement justiciable. Under our dual system in our constitution, any agreement made by government has to be underpinned by domestic legislation. If this is to be a binding agreement, as the Minister said at the Dispatch Box, it will require ratification by Parliament. How will this agreement be ratified?