Lib Dems oppose “moral vacuum” Rwanda Bill

When there has been so much discussion around the party’s messaging and whether it showcases our values enough recently, it is a relief to see our parliamentarians speak out so strongly against the bizarrely named Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill as though just writing something down makes it so.

Alistair Carmichael described the Bill as showing a “grim and illiberal mentality” and would replace our asylum system with a moral vacuum. Here’s his whole speech:

I say sincerely that it is a genuine pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland). He gave a characteristically thoughtful speech for Second Reading and, more interestingly, laid down several markers for future stages, should we get to that point. This is a most interesting and unusual Second Reading debate; we are seeing played out in front of us a tripartite discussion between one side of the Government, another side of the Government and the Treasury Bench. It is a remarkable spectacle to observe, albeit not a particularly seemly one.

I was struck by the reliance that the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) placed on the references made by the right hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Sir Geoffrey Cox) to proceedings in relation to the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc. ) Act 2004. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman observed, that was where the concept of safe countries was introduced. The list of safe countries included all the EU countries except Croatia, plus Norway, Iceland and later Switzerland. It was another piece of legislation that restricted the access of rights to appeal for those whose asylum claims had been unsuccessful. There are perhaps lessons to be learned for us all in how that line of legislation has developed ever since.

The enduring lesson I take is not that that Act was introduced by a Labour Government—a Government that had David Blunkett as Home Secretary—but that the Bill was opposed, with some controversy at the time, by the then Conservative Opposition. They described it as “clumsy and draconian”. They were absolutely right about that and, many years later, we can see exactly where that sort of legislation has taken us. What is it about the Conservative party of 2023 that now finds that sort of legislation so attractive?

Let us not forget that we are dealing with the consequence of the refusal of this Government to prosecute the case for safe and legal routes. Why do we not find people from Ukraine or Hong Kong trying to cross the channel in small boats? It is because we offer them safe and legal routes. The Rwanda scheme is unworkable—we know that because it has never been made to work—and the barriers are well rehearsed, but every time they are thwarted, the response of this Government is to throw a foot-stamping tantrum. Anyone who ever had any doubt about the depth and scale of Tory self-entitlement can see it laid bare here today. The Bill is not about making the system work or providing an effective deterrent; it is simply about trying to bring together a disparate range of forces within their own party.

How many will Rwanda take over the five years of the agreement? The only reliable information about that comes from the Rwandans themselves: it will be a few hundred. What sort of deterrent effect will that have? Everything that we know about the Bill and the cost of the scheme comes not from the Home Office, but from the Rwandan Government. It is because of the information that they put into the public domain that we learned about the extra £100 million that the Government have submitted; they were never going to tell us.

The problems facing this policy are manifest and they are not going to be wished away. We should not forget, however, that even with those issues wiped away at a stroke, the Bill and the scheme would still represent a moral vacuum where our asylum system should be. It is wrong in the practicalities, but it is also wrong on the principle. It is a liberal value to take personal responsibility and to live up to one’s obligations. Passing on our asylum responsibilities to another country is the opposite of that value. It is a step back from the world and a move towards isolationism. It suggests that we have no responsibilities to the wider world.

Much like this Bill’s rewriting of reality to impose a judgment of safety to Rwanda, these plans would reverse decades of the UK’s leading the way on the international rule of law and rules-based order, of which we should be so proud. Many across the House, having boasted about global Britain, must now ask themselves whether they really want to turn us into fortress Britain. The Bill suggests a grim and illiberal mentality that is a far cry from the confidence that our country used to project, and that, Mr Deputy Speaker, is why we should reject it this evening.

In her Scotsman column this week, Christine Jardine highlighted the irony of this Bill being debated the day after the 75th anniversary of the International Declaration of Human Rights.

The horror of terrified refugees, exploited by people-traffickers, risking, and often losing, their lives as they try to cross the freezing Channel in overcrowded boats is surely something we all want to end. But it should not be at the cost of our international reputation or adherence to the rule of law.

She would, she said, be on the side of these “precious human rights.”

The Conservatives are trying to make this issue take over the political agenda, but, as Liz Jarvis, our PPC for Eastleigh pointed out on Twitter yesterday

Any Conservative MP claiming to speak for their constituents on the Rwanda Bill really needs to go and knock on some doors.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Peter Wrigley 13th Dec '23 - 1:19pm

    What a wonderful speech from Alistair Carmichael: at least there’s one Liberal not prepared to hide out light under a bushel.
    Though I’m delighted to see the Conservative Party tearing themselves apart, what I don’t understand is why they are making such a fuss over an issue which is entirely marginal to the UK (though crucial for those coming here in small boats, not to mention our international reputation.
    The government website tells us that the numbers coming here illegally in the year till June 2023 is 52 530. Of these 87% arrived in small boats: that’s 44 650.5 (maybe the point five was a baby.) I couldn’t find the total number of immigrants for exactly the same time period but the most recent was 1.16m.
    Now, unless I’ve pressed the wrong buttons on my calculator, 44 651 (generously rounding up – the baby may be a toddler now) is a mere 3.8% of 1.16m.
    As it happens, I regard it a great blessing that I live in a country where people want to come to rather than escape from, and appreciate the additional benefits immigrants bring, from car washers to doctors and dentists.
    But, even if you think immigration should be curbed, why make such a fuss about the marginal 3.8%. Instead, much better to tackle any additional pressures these welcome immigrants may cause in our society, such as building more houses and schools, setting up language classes, training more teachers, doctors and nurses?

  • @ Peter Wrigley , ” I don’t understand is why they are making such a fuss over an issue which is entirely marginal to the UK”.

    It’s quite simple, Peter. They’re so desperately worried and fearful about losing the next election that they’re reduced to playing dog whistle politics in an attempt to appeal to prejudice in places such as West Yorkshire etc. I hope recognition of this acts as a cautionary tale to any thought of a coalition with them should that turn out to be an option.

  • Christopher Haigh 13th Dec '23 - 6:44pm

    I don’t think it’s even illegal to arrive by boat as long as asylum is applied for on landing. If the problem is people trafficking then it’s the gangs organising this trade that should be targeted.

  • Martin Gray 13th Dec '23 - 7:06pm

    The Tories have obviously lost a considerable amount of credibility on immigration …It remains a big concern amongst voters. A significant number of voters want stricter controls, & speedier deportation of those that are here illegally .. We’d be naive to think otherwise.

  • @ Martin Gray “It remains a big concern amongst voters. A significant number of voters want stricter controls, & speedier deportation of those that are here illegally .. We’d be naive to think otherwise”.

    Interesting that a YouGov poll, on 14 April 2022, found that, “42% of those questioned disagreed with the plan, while 35% were in support. Results differed depending on what political party members of the public supported”.

    Given the cost of the plan has now escalated to almost £ 300 million, it would be interesting to know if that minority 35% are still quite so keen as they were last April.

  • Martin Gray 14th Dec '23 - 3:10am

    @David Raw …. Immigration has been in the top three concerns for voters for a considerable period . Irrespective of the idiotic & doomed Rwanda policy – a considerable number of voters want illegal asylum seekers returned forthwith…The voters that gave Johnson an 80+ seat majority at the 19GE ..Council elections & By-elections are no substitute for engaging with the voters on the doorstep that vote once every 4/5 years – we’d be naive to think that those voters are dissatisfied with the Tories because our immigration system is not liberal enough…

  • Peter Davies 14th Dec '23 - 6:56am

    What neither government nor opposition want to mention is that they have already brought the number of illegal migrants down by about two thirds largely by cooperation with Europeans. The peak came in the aftermath of Brexit when shouting insults across the channel was the preferred strategy. What worries me is that if they get one person on a flight to Rwanda, they will be able to attribute this success entirely to ‘being tough’.

  • Steve Trevethan 14th Dec '23 - 9:13am

    Might significant «immigration » problems be a lack of administrative efficiency, dramatic misrepresentations by H M G and the mainstream media and a deep desire of our current H M G to always seek vulnerable victims to persecute in headline dominating ways?

  • @ Martin Gray Are you saying that the You Gov poll that I quoted is incorrect ? It would be useful if you could produce concrete evidence for what, at the moment, is just an assertion.

    As to, “The voters that gave Johnson an 80+ seat majority at the 19GE”, I rather thought that was more to do with ‘getting Brexit done’ because people were heartily sick of the pantomime it had become – as well as the perceived inadequacies of Mr Corbyn

  • Suzanne Fletcher 14th Dec '23 - 9:50am

    Good points based on Lib Dem values, but missed off are:
    1. It is not illegal to come to the UK to claim asylum
    2. The issue should not be whether Rwanda or anywhere is deemed “safe” but the principle of asylum applications being decided on offshore is completely wrong.
    3. We should be promoting “Humanitarian Visas” (Lib Dem policy) as a way of decision making that would prevent people making dangerous and expensive journeys here by boat.
    4. There needs to be radical reform of the Home Office and how it makes decisions on asylum applications, and in the meantime speed up the process (also Lib Dem Policy)

  • Martin Gray 15th Dec '23 - 5:23am

    @David Raw ….What I’m saying David is that voters concerns are not about the Rwanda policy in general – but about the immigration system being dysfunctional & weak …There’s some in the party that advocate open borders , but that’s not shared by the British public. Come next year – door knocking in the real world we’ll get our answer ..

  • Steve Trevethan 15th Dec '23 - 12:35pm

    Might it be that policies which major on lack of sound information, combined with fear and unkindness to the weaker are being promoted for intended electoral benefit to the cost of deep long term policies of national advantage such as addressing the forthcoming bankruptcy of Thames Water?

  • Steve Trevethan 15th Dec '23 - 12:47pm

    Besides being gratuitously cruel, might this « Ruanda » legislation be undermining our whole legal system by legislating untruths and impossibilities to be legally true and possible?

    How can our Parliament’s legislation actually change safety in Ruanda?

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