20 February 2024
The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Rev Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani spoke twice during the third day of the Committee Stage of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill in the House of Lords.
Amendments 54 and 55 - safeguarding the welfare of children
On the afternoon of Monday 19 February, Bishop Guli spoke in favour of amendments 54 and 55 to which she had added her name. The amendments relate to the protection of children in the Bill.
My Lords, I rise in support of amendments 54 and 55 to which I’ve added my name. I want to thank both noble Lords, Baroness Lister and Lord Dubs, for providing us with the opportunity to ensure the voice of the child is heard in this debate. For we should never forget that both accompanied and unaccompanied children and those who may well be found to be children, are in the scope of this Bill, which the Government cannot confirm is compatible with convention rights under the ECHR. I spoke earlier in Committee on the universality of human rights but to remove children from their reach is simply unforgivable and for this reason, I repeat the request of Baroness Lister, for a child’s right impact assessment to be published as a matter of urgency.
I believe strongly that changes are needed to Clause 4 of this Bill if we are to ensure the welfare and best interests of children are protected. For safeguarding is not a discretionary requirement and the UK is legally obliged to protect and promote the interests of the child. The fundamental issue that amendment 55 seeks to address is that the Treaty itself excludes unaccompanied children from the partnership agreement while also acknowledging they may be sent to Rwanda erroneously. This contradiction means the Treaty, in a section entitled Part 3 general, provides only vague information about Rwanda’s plans to safeguard children – a group surely more vulnerable than any other you could possibly imagine.
It’s not my place to doubt the sincerity of the Rwandan authorities commitment to providing child suitable safeguards but my Lords good intent is no basis for safeguarding, and sending children before the Treaty is fully implemented would be a dereliction of our duty to them. This, combined with leaving a potential child with no suspensive legal redress against their removal, is simply unconscionable. Why if the Treaty has identified the risk of sending a child to Rwanda in error, has there been no mitigation put in place? Can I ask the noble Lord the Minister, has it been decided that the risk is tolerable regardless of all the anguish and trauma it would cause to a child?
Can the Minister also assure us that all children would be returned in these circumstances, because although it is in the Treaty, it is not a legal obligation on the face of this Bill?
The Home Office’s own figures, although incomplete, because they don’t include the number of children moved into an adult setting, indicate that last year 60% of all resolved age dispute cases found the young asylum seeker to be a child. That is 2,219 children, without a parent or guardian, who if this Bill had been in operation, may have been eligible for removal to Rwanda, if a full assessment had not been completed. I would therefore ask the noble Lord the Minister, what assessment has been undertaken to evaluate the impact of removing a potential child from the UKs child support services and then the UK entirely, before awaiting the conclusion of all outstanding age assessment challenges?
Age assessments are complex and therefore it is understandable that visual age assessments by immigration officers can lead to inaccurate judgements. In fact the Home Office’s own guidance states that “physical appearance is a notoriously unreliable basis for assessment of chronological age.” Given errors are an inherent part of the age verification process, can the Minister reassure us, at the very least, that when an individual’s age is disputed, they won’t be subject to removal before having met with a social worker and child protection team for a more comprehensive age assessment? Under this Bill the repercussions of inaccurate age assessments are disastrous. Even if a child were to be returned to the UK after they were verified to be a minor, the impact would be devastating for their physical and mental wellbeing and would likely leave an imprint on them for the rest of their lives.
The amendment proposed does not hinder the Government’s objective to begin transfer of asylum seekers to Rwanda but ensures there has been a definitive determination on a person’s age before their removal. It supports the Government in meeting the Treaty commitment. The determination that a young person may be a child and therefore could deserve all the rights a child, should be and must be reason enough to prevent their removal. My Lords a child is a child regardless of whether they remain with their family or not.
Amendment 54 simply seeks to maintain a current safeguard when a child is being considered for removal, which requires the Home Secretary to consult with the Independent Family Returns Panel,to ensure that their safeguarding needs are appropriately met. Section 14 of the Illegal Migration Act, which is not yet in effect, disapplied this safeguard. Myself, I do not believe children seeking safety in the UK should face removal to Rwanda. But at the absolute minimum, the process should ensure that their welfare and best interests are considered, and maintaining a role for the Panel would help facilitate this.
If the Government proceed to send children to Rwanda without appropriate safeguards, vulnerable children will undoubtedly face an intolerable level of emotional distress. I therefore implore the Government to give the utmost consideration to these reasonable and principled amendments.
Amendment 91 - introducing a Sunset Clause
On the evening of Monday 19 February, Bishop Guli spoke to her own amendement 91, to add a Sunset Clause to the Bill. A Sunset Clause is a provision in a Bill that gives it an expiry date once it is passed into law. Sunset clauses are included in legislation when it is felt that Parliament should have the chance to decide on its merits again after a fixed period.
My Lords, I rise to move amendment 91 in my name and I am grateful to my noble friends Lord Scriven and Lord Blunkett for their support. I want to keep my comments as short as possible, given the hour and the fact that some of the issues have been debated earlier in Committee. However, I do think there is merit in discussing the value of a sunset provision now that each of the Bills’ clauses have been scrutinised.
The fundamental issue, which I fear has not yet been fully addressed by the Government benches, is that we are being asked to make a permanent judgement on the safety of Rwanda on the basis of the yet to be implemented arrangements outlined in the Treaty. This is of course against the opinion of our highest court. Furthermore, it is simply not arguable on any rational basis that Rwanda is safe at present, when as the Minister himself has conceded Rwanda is “moving towards” having the required protections in place.
At present it remains the opinion of this House that the Treaty should not be ratified until Parliament is satisfied that the protections it provides have been fully implemented. This amendment simply probes what other mechanism could be used to enable Parliament to revise or review their judgement on the safety of Rwanda, if the Government do indeed proceed with ratification.
This is not a wrecking amendment. Rather, it enables the Rwandan partnership to continue if the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees can confirm that Rwanda “is fulfilling its obligations under the Rwanda Treaty”, even if on these Benches we do not believe it to be an approach befitting of our nation’s values. I also have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the UK or Rwanda in trying to fulfil these obligations and they may well provide the basis for a future assessment of the safety of Rwanda if fully realised. But good faith is no basis for a sound legal judgment and therefore this amendment provides Parliament the opportunity to revisit the issue after a fixed period.
At present the evidence simply is not there that the necessary steps have been taken to ensure the Treaty protections will be in place to protect a very vulnerable grouping from injustices. The Treaty itself in fact envisages initial shortcomings for which increased monitoring is proposed and UNHCR are yet to observe substantial changes in practice of asylum adjudication that would overcome the concerns of the Supreme Court. Two years seems a plausible timeframe in which to operationalise the required changes given the Minster has stated at the despatch box that the Rwandan authorities are expediting the changes needed. Importantly, the terms of reference for the Monitoring Committee also stipulate it will cover the first two years of the partnership.
If it is the opinion of the Government that a sunset clause is not necessary, can I give the noble Lord the Minister another opportunity to answer the question posed by many in this chamber - how will they ensure the obligations of the Treaty, and I quote the Treaty here “can both in practice be complied with and are in fact complied with”? This is even more critical a question given that any recommendations arising from the monitoring arrangements in the Treaty are non-obligatory.
I remain of the belief that it is not the role of Parliament to impose a factual and legal determination on all courts for the fundamental reason, and forgive me my Lordships for stating the obvious, that declaring another nation state safe does not in fact make it so. But if the Government are choosing to place what some have called a judicial blindfold on our courts, we must explore what independent and expert scrutiny can come to bear on the question of the safety of Rwanda. Other noble Lords have commented on what might be an appropriate mechanism which I implore the Government to give due consideration to - surely we cannot leave a conclusive legal fiction on the statute book, irrespective of the evidence.
By signing off Rwanda as safe, without a method to evaluate whether the Treaty has been fully implemented, we will expose asylum seekers to a real risk of refoulement especially given there is limited suspensive legal remedy for those facing removal. This is no light matter given they may go onto face torture or serious mistreatment from which they once fled, a trauma that cannot be undone. Providing no legal or parliamentary accountability for the terms of the Treaty is both absurd and an abdication of our nation’s commitment to justice. I therefore hope a solution can be brought forward ahead of Report to this unprincipled omission.