Westminster update: Rwanda bill

Your weekly update from our public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall. This week: the Rwanda bill and treaty, leasehold reform, the Criminal Justice Bill and the state of the courts.
The palace of Westminster in the evening.
Photograph: Thomas Riebesehl

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What you need to know

1. Rwanda Bill: Sunak survives committee stage and third reading

On Tuesday 16 and Wednesday 17, the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill had its committee stage and third reading in the Commons.

Before proceedings, media outlets anticipated wide-ranging amendments from attempts to effectively gut the bill to strengthening it against domestic and international court rulings.

The bill's committee stage lasted nearly 12 hours over the two days.

Opposition parties spoke passionately against the bill entirely.

Alison Thewliss (SNP) and Tim Farron (Lib Dem) both cited our arguments about the unworkability of the bill and the threats it poses to judicial independence and the rule of law.

Despite this, the central struggle during proceedings came from within the Conservative Party.

On the one hand is the right wing of the party, led by the former illegal immigration minister Robert Jenrick and former home secretary Suella Braverman.

Jenrick tabled several amendments to further protect against challenges from UK or international courts. He called the UK's relationship with the European Court of Human Rights “unsustainable”.

Braverman spoke of fatal flaws in the bill which would inevitably lead the government back to square one.

Jenrick’s amendments were eventually defeated in a vote by the House.

On the other hand were the One Nation Conservatives, who did not necessarily disagree with arguments about the ECHR, but leaned more on reform from within and warned against measures to override court judgments.

Sir Bob Neill argued you cannot legislate away international law obligations or agreements.

Sir Robert Buckland meanwhile called clause one “bad policy-making” and tabled amendments to ensure the Rwandan government implements provisions from the treaty before any asylum seekers are relocated. These amendments were eventually withdrawn by Sir Robert.

The debates at the third reading followed a similar pattern, with the right wing of the party noting their belief that the bill will not work, while other Conservatives warned against rebellion and blankly emphasised that defeat would most likely bring a general election.

Fortunately for Sunak, a majority of the would-be rebels ultimately backed the Rwanda Bill.

The bill now moves on to the House of Lords, where it is expected to face fierce opposition at second reading on 29 January.

2. Rwanda treaty: Lords Committee echoes Law Society concerns

On Wednesday 17 January, the Lords International Agreements Committee published a report on the government’s treaty with Rwanda, which found that unless further steps are taken the treaty will not immediately address concerns about the safety of Rwanda for asylum seekers.

The committee set out the purpose of the report to “consider whether the treaty does provide parliament with a basis for declaring through the [Safety of Rwanda] Bill that Rwanda is a safe country”.

It concluded that, while the treaty compels Rwanda to “take all steps that are necessary or appropriate to ensure that their obligations can both in practice be complied with and are complied with”, this does not provide any proof that Rwanda can fulfil these obligations.

The committee echoed our concerns that insufficient time has been allocated to scrutinising the treaty.

Its report also quoted from our submission to its inquiry, highlighting our concern that the Monitoring Committee provided for in the treaty lacks the powers to respond to any systemic failures it identifies.

The committee also emphasised the importance of the separation of powers between parliament and the courts.

They conclude it would be “constitutionally inappropriate for Parliament to seek through statute to overturn findings of fact by the Supreme Court, especially when the bill includes an ouster clause excluding judicial review”.

The Lords are set to debate this report on Monday and vote on a motion to delay ratification of the treaty.

We have briefed peers on our concerns about the treaty’s shortcomings.

The significant concerns raised by the committee’s report could also prove informative for the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill’s proceedings.

3. Leasehold reform: Law Society gives evidence on new legislation

On Thursday 18 January, Philip Freedman from our Conveyancing and Land Law Committee appeared in parliament to give evidence to MPs on the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill.

We have been briefing MPs on the bill, including our recommendations on improving the provision of key lease information, ensuring fairness around enfranchisement costs and ending the sale of new leasehold houses.

Freedman delivered our key lines on the bill and answered questions on:

  • forfeiture
  • ground rent caps
  • the cost of enfranchisement
  • the impact of the bill on leaseholders, freeholders and investors

The committee also heard from a range of policy experts, campaigners and the chair of the Leasehold Advisory Service.

Watch the leasehold reform session

Over the course of the next few weeks, MPs on the public bill committee will go through the bill line-by-line and vote on a series of amendments to strengthen, change or remove provisions in the bill.

4. Criminal Justice Bill: MPs debate warrantless search and renting cells abroad

The Criminal Justice Bill continued its committee stage in the House of Commons on Tuesday 16 and Thursday 18.

MPs debated provisions to rent prison cells abroad and new powers to allow the police to carry out searches without a warrant when they suspect stolen goods are present in a property.

During the debate on using foreign prisons, shadow justice minister Alex Cunningham quoted our concerns around access to legal advice and how appeals or court processes will be managed if prisoners are held abroad, and our view that the bill may pose significant human rights implications.

In response, the justice minister Laura Farris confirmed that while negotiations are still ongoing on which countries will be used for this, the UK is only speaking to European countries that are bound by the ECHR, which the government believes the bill complies with.

She opposed attempts to codify restrictions on the types of prisoners that could be sent abroad in legislation, arguing that this is an issue for government policy, not the bill itself.

Turning to warrantless search, shadow minister for policing Alex Norris argued that this is a controversial measure, but understood the frustration of constituents who could not understand why their goods could not be returned to them when they knew where they were based on a GPS tracker or similar data.

He pushed for additional safeguards on the measure and suggested an amendment to align the clause with similar existing powers for when police are pursuing a suspect.

The minister, Chris Philp, welcomed Labour’s broad support for the principle of the measure but felt the amendment was not appropriate, as the new powers are solely focused on stolen goods and safeguards already exist.

The amendment was not voted on.

The bill will continue its committee stage in the coming weeks.

5. Lady chief justice faces questions from MPs for first time

The lady chief justice, Baroness Sue Carr, gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee on her priorities and the state of the courts and backlogs, in her first appearance since her appointment late last year.

Baroness Carr said her priorities for the position are to:

  • promote judicial strength including judicial independence
  • promote judicial unity
  • address backlogs and timeliness in the courts

She said she wants to oversee a system where individuals and families can move on with their lives and businesses can resolve their disputes and issues quickly.

Baroness Carr also highlighted the extensive economic strength of the legal services sector.

The lady chief justice went into detail on the serious repair issues facing the court estate.

She noted that 100 courtrooms a week suffer from unplanned closures and in one case she had been told a court had no drinking water.

She said she is pushing for the system to be funded effectively to ensure these issues can be addressed.

Furthermore, she gave her assessment that the 53,000 Crown Court backlog target the government is aiming for is unlikely to be achieved at present.

Baroness Carr further used the session to address speculation in the media that the judiciary had engaged with the government over proposed legislation to quash Post Office convictions relating to the Horizon IT system.

She said it is not for the judiciary to comment on proposed legislation and that she had not done this.

Coming up:

We are working on a number of bills in parliament:

If you made it this far...

The UK has officially signed up to the Hague 19 Convention, further boosting the global reputation of English law.

We have welcomed this announcement, which will benefit the UK legal profession.

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