- By Sam Francis
- Political Reporter, BBC News
January 29, 2024, 10:51 GMT
Updated 25 minutes ago
Due to legal difficulties, the first Rwanda flight was canceled shortly before takeoff in June 2022
Rishi Sunak's flagship Rwanda bill faces its first test as debate begins in the House of Lords.
Peers including the Archbishop of Canterbury have criticized the principles of the bill, while the Liberal Democrats are pushing for it to be scrapped entirely.
The move is expected to fail, but colleagues have indicated they will seek to remove key powers as the bill progresses.
The government's plan aims to stop legal challenges to sending asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Last week colleagues dealt a defeat to the plan by calling for a deal between Britain and Rwanda to be delayed until Kigali improves its asylum procedures.
Key votes on the legislation in the upper house are not expected until next month, but any changes made by peers are likely to be overturned by the lower house.
The government hopes to have flights to Rwanda operational by spring.
So far, 66 speakers have spoken in Monday's debate.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said the bill would be “damaging” to the UK's reputation, to “national unity” and to asylum seekers “who need protection”.
This bill “obscures the truth that all people, including asylum seekers, have great value,” he said.
The archbishop said he would not vote against the bill at second reading but told colleagues the UK “can do better”.
Former Labor home secretary Lord David Blunkett described the bill as “bad and less than this country deserves”.
Lord Blunkett argued that the Rwanda law failed in its primary purpose because it “punished” asylum seekers rather than smuggling gangs.
To stop boat smuggling, Britain must “get its act together”, Lord Blunkett said, by securing borders, processing claims and striking new deals with the French.
But Conservative Lord Hannan, a former MEP, said the bill was “imperfect” but part of a “package of measures” that would act as a deterrent and curb demand for illegal immigration to the UK.
Former Conservative chancellor Lord Clarke said he would not support the bill, saying it would endanger the UK's constitution.
Declaring Rwanda a safe country is “trying to refute the facts” found by the Supreme Court, which found the country unsafe for asylum seekers, he said. The government might as well decide: “All dogs are cats,” he added.
Ahead of the debate, Downing Street insisted the Rwanda bill was “the right thing”.
The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: “This bill is an important part of how we stop violent criminal gangs who target vulnerable people, which has led to too many deaths in the English Channel.”
“It is also a fair deal, both for taxpayers and for those who want to come here by safe and legal means and see their place being displaced by those who can afford to cross in small boats.”
The Prime Minister was able to pass the bill in the House of Commons after there was no uprising by the Conservatives.
Mr Sunak has argued that deporting some asylum seekers to Rwanda would be a deterrent to migrants trying to reach Britain in small boats across the English Channel, but Labor described the plan as an expensive “gimmick”.
The debate over the bill has exposed ongoing divisions among the Conservatives – which led to two deputy leaders, Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith, resigning from their positions to vote for the rebel amendments.
In the final round of voting in the House of Commons on January 18, more than 60 Conservative MPs backed rebel amendments that would allow the British government to ignore parts of human rights law when sending people to Rwanda.
Dozens of Tory MPs had indicated they would be prepared to abstain or even vote against the entire bill without major changes.
Ultimately, however, only 11 MPs voted against it – including former immigration minister Robert Jenrick and former home secretary Suella Braverman.
The votes were the culmination of months of infighting within the Conservative party and coincided with a poll funded by an anonymous group called the Conservative Britain Alliance – which estimated Labor was on track for a 120-seat majority.
Conservative pollster Lord Hayward called on the Electoral Commission to investigate polls conducted by groups without a credible identifiable “beneficial owner”.