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Rwanda: Asylum Arrangements Treaty

Volume 834: debated on Tuesday 21 November 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have for ratification of the proposed asylum arrangements treaty with the government of Rwanda, as announced by the Prime Minister on 15 November; and whether they intend the treaty to be subject to scrutiny by Parliament for 21 days under the provisions of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.

My Lords, the Government will lay a treaty before both Houses of Parliament in due course. This will enable Parliament to consider Rwanda as safe, in conjunction with new legislation announced by the Prime Minister. We will follow standard procedure as per the CRaG Act.

I am grateful for that Answer and for the confirmation that this time, the treaty will be put through the CRaG process. That will mean that Parliament will be able to scrutinise the agreement and consider the relevant policy considerations, and indeed the financial implications, unlike the memorandum of understanding, which the International Agreements Committee of this House previously said was deeply concerning because that scrutiny was not available. Can the Minister also tell us when the CRaG notice will be given so that that process can start, and when the relevant Minister will come to the committee to give evidence?

I am afraid I do not have that detail because the Bill has yet to be presented to Parliament. However, as I understand it, the timeframe is 21 days after laying, when both Houses are sitting, for the treaty process to take effect.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, for the purposes of assessing the safety of a country, a theoretical commitment to treaty obligations is not sufficient? What counts is the performance of those obligations, which requires a period of assessment.

My noble friend asked me a very similar question yesterday and I will give a very similar answer, which is that I am unable to predict what is likely to be in the legislation that is yet to be presented to Parliament.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that, if a committee of this House—the International Agreements Committee or indeed the relevant committee in the other place—under CRaG, were to make a report for debate, the Government would not proceed to ratification of the treaty unless and until that debate had taken place?

Again, the noble Lord is asking me to speculate on something that has not yet happened, and I am afraid I do not see the point of that.

My Lords, are the Government intent on making any payment to the Government of Rwanda for converting their MoU into a treaty, and have the Government provided any support to the Rwandan Government in the last 12 months for the training of their officials in the immigration department?

Again, as I said yesterday, in answer to the second part of the noble Lord’s question, the answer is yes. As regards the costs, I have no knowledge of that.

My Lords, this proposal is both an expensive distraction and a delusion. Is it not true that even the far-right Prime Minister of Italy has proposals that would mean processing offshore but with Italian immigration officers, and those adjudged to be legitimate asylum seekers would then be returned to Italy? If we cannot manage something the far right in Italy can, what sort of people are we?

This is a personal opinion, my Lords. Having said that, of course, I am also not going to speculate about what other countries may be doing. I notice that a number of other countries are exploring possibilities very similar to those we are looking at.

My Lords, have not the Falkland Islands been considered as an alternative to Rwanda, and what progress has been made with that proposal?

My Lords, did not the Supreme Court make a finding of fact that Rwanda had broken similar agreements in the past with the Government of Israel and that the state of the Government in Rwanda did not give rise to any confidence that they would comply with the agreement we have made? How does a treaty affect that at all? Are the Government capable of taking any steps that make the Government of Rwanda look more capable, and are the Government searching for another safe country that can be trusted, which seems to me the only way in which this policy can possibly be continued with any hope of success?

My Lords, that gives me an opportunity to reflect again on what the court said:

“changes and capacity-building needed to eliminate the risk”—

of refoulement—

“may be delivered in future, but they were not shown to be in place when the lawfulness of the policy had to be considered in these proceedings”.

The fact was that those proceedings considered one day —14 June 2022. Much has changed since then, so I think we should wait to see what the legislation says.

My Lords, yesterday, the Minister could not answer a number of questions regarding the proposed treaty ratification process—its consents legislation —despite his usual courtesies. Was he aware that the same day he was speaking, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, was pictured carrying the returns (removal to Rwanda) Bill into Downing Street with the date of 19 November on it? I think we could do with knowing whether the Minister was aware of the contents of that Bill. Can he confirm that the Bill will have a proper, full ratification process, not contain suggestions such as the Falkland Islands, which we have heard about, as a fallback position, and also respect international law—or does he need to consult the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, before he answers?

I would also note that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, asked me an incredibly unhelpful question on another subject yesterday, so that is a win double. Actually, I was not aware of any of the contents of whatever may or may not have been in the folder of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that entirely legal immigration, encouraged by his Government, is roughly eight or 10 times the number of illegal migrants, to which this Question is addressed?

The Minister did not answer the question of the noble Lord, Lord Clarke. According to the Telegraph, Lord Sumption warned that a new treaty would not prove the country was safe, as Rwanda does not have the institutional strength to observe its own treaty obligations. What changes have happened to give the Government the belief that it has the strength to fulfil its treaty obligations?

Again, the noble Baroness is speculating as to what may or may not be in the legislation, which no one has yet seen—apart, perhaps, from the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. However, I would also note that there are 135,000 refugees in Rwanda as we speak.

My Lords, I declare my interest as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Rwanda. I was appointed in 2014 by the then Prime Minister, who I am delighted to see on our Front Bench today—my noble friend Lord Cameron. In dealing with Rwanda for the past nine years, I have found the Government to be very honest, transparent and forthcoming. I am sure my noble friend will agree that whatever agreement we reach with the Rwandan Government, they will show due respect for it, but, most important, for the asylum seekers.

I thank my noble friend very much indeed for that question, and I agree with the sentiments behind it. The Rwandans have behaved with great dignity in the face of some provocation.

My Lords, in answering the question from the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, the Minister did not give the answer that I think we were hoping for. I know that it is not the Minister’s department, but when the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone—he is probably here—was in the Department for International Trade, “the Grimstone rule” was agreed. It said that, where a committee asked for a debate, it would be given. I hope that the Minister’s department will act as honourably as the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, did when he was a Minister and that that debate will be given.

My Lords, it may have escaped the Minister’s attention that a schedule to the then Illegal Migration Bill had Rwanda down as a safe country. It also listed another 20 or so countries that the Government deemed safe through that legislation. What assessment have the Government made of those countries in the light of the Supreme Court’s judgment?

My Lords, the Supreme Court’s judgment was specific to Rwanda, so we should leave it at discussing Rwanda for now.

My Lords, given that so many other countries have issues similar to our own, can my noble friend the Minister update the House on any conversations about an international agreement, perhaps under UK leadership, to deal with this issue on a wider basis?

As we discussed at the Dispatch Box yesterday, those sorts of discussions are clearly going to have to take place at some point. Again, that question would perhaps be more appropriately directed at my noble friend the Foreign Secretary.

My Lords, can the Minister indicate whether the provisions in the new Rwanda treaty will adhere to the ECHR, which underpins our Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland?

My Lords, as I say, I cannot comment on the specifics at the moment. However, I reiterate the Prime Minister’s commitment to stopping the boats and removing barriers if necessary. The detail and implications of doing so will be considered carefully; of course, that will take the GFA into account.

My Lords, that concludes Oral Questions for today. We now come to some formal business, so if any noble Lord would like to leave, now is the time to do it.