I DID not find it easy to decide how to vote on Second Reading of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill. I had to consider both the legal viability of the proposed legislation and its political merits. I concluded that it was right to vote for the Bill at Second Reading and, as I always try to do in relation to controversial votes, I want to explain my decision.
The first thing to say is that it is important to understand the significance of the stage in consideration of the Bill we are at. Second Reading of a Bill is a discussion of its outline and general principles and a vote to give it a Second Reading is a vote to allow the Bill to proceed to line by line consideration at Committee Stage. The Bill cannot make further progress and move to the House of Lords unless it is given a Third Reading in the New Year. I have made it clear to the Government Whips that my vote cannot be taken for granted in any further stages of the Bill.
In relation to the legal viability of the Bill, you would expect me as a former Attorney General to think about this carefully and I have. It is legally viable to pass declaratory Acts that deem things to be the case. As a matter of constitutional law, it is permissible for the UK Parliament to decide to breach, or to disapply, International Law. This is a consequence of the doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty, on which our constitution is based and of our ‘dualist’ system of law where International Law only becomes binding on us if it is also part of our domestic law. The Bill seeks to declare Rwanda a safe country for the purposes of sending asylum seekers there to have their asylum claims determined, and in doing so recognises that these actions may be said to be in breach of international law. Parliament is deciding in this Bill to take them anyway. In purely legal terms, I believe this can be done. What I do not think can be done is for the UK, or any other nation, to deem itself to be in compliance with International Law, as I worry some language in the Bill claims to do. If it were otherwise, International Law would be of no value and would not be worthy of the name, and other nations who we criticise for their failure to adhere to International Law would see an opportunity to say they could simply declare themselves in compliance with it. The UK would never accept that and so we should not maintain that it would be acceptable for us to do so. Ministers tell me that this is not what they seek to do with this Bill (and it could or should have no effect in International Law terms anyway), but I will want absolute clarity on this point before I can finally accept the Bill would be legally viable.
On political desirability, I am deeply uncomfortable with the approach this Bill takes, but I also accept the Government is in a very difficult position. We cannot tolerate abuse of our asylum system by those who are really economic migrants. We have a process for considering the admission of economic migrants (and there are separate concerns about the numbers being admitted via that route) but failing to prevent economic migrants from avoiding that process by crossing the Channel in small boats is unfair on those who are genuine asylum seekers, those who are applying properly as economic migrants, and on the UK taxpayer who pays for their processing and accommodation. It is also of course incredibly dangerous for those making the journey and enriches criminal gangs who are preying upon them in facilitating it. The policy of insisting that asylum seekers can have their claims considered and resolved in a third safe country is a rational way of deterring those whose real objective is to reach the UK for economic reasons without preventing those fleeing genuine peril from leaving it behind them. Deterrence cannot be the only part of a policy to prevent illegal immigration, but it is a perfectly reasonable component of it. The Government has been prevented from using that policy component by legal challenges and it is in my view entitled to seek ways to address that. It is likely that the numbers of those seeking to come to the UK will only increase and we simply can’t take them all. A workable immigration policy is therefore increasingly essential and action justified to secure it therefore more radical. The Government in my view deserves the chance to try this partial solution and it has not yet been able to do so. I think the current draft of this legislation, subject to the clarification I mentioned earlier, just about stays the right side of the rule of law, at least to merit further consideration. That is what I voted to give it and I will consider my votes on future stages of this legislation equally carefully.