How much power does the Lords have to stop Rwanda Bill?

Peers have suggested they plan to water down Rishi Sunak's Rwanda bill, but can they actually stop it?

Men thought to be migrants who undertook the crossing from France in small boats and were picked up in the Channel, are disembarked from a small transfer boat from a larger British border force vessel that didn't come into the port, in Dover, south east England, Friday, June 17, 2022. The British government vowed Wednesday to organize more flights to deport asylum-seekers from around the world to Rwanda, after a last-minute court judgment grounded the first plane due to take off under the contentious policy. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
The proposed Rwanda policy aims to deter migrants from arriving to the UK on small boats via the English Channel. (Alamy)

What's happening?

Rishi Sunak's controversial Rwanda deportation plan has cleared a major hurdle after passing its second reading stage in the House of Lords.

The proposal, which would see asylum seekers arriving via the English Channel deported to the East African country, still fierce opposition in the upper chamber on Monday night, with Liberal Democrat peer Lord German submitting a motion to decline a second reading.

He suggested the bill puts the UK at risk of breaching international law, will lead to "substantial costs to the taxpayer", would fail to provide safe routes for refugees and fails to includes measures to stop criminal people smuggling gangs. However, the Lords voted against the motion by 206 votes to 84, with Labour choosing to abstain.

Sunak's bill already survived its third reading in the Commons in December despite the threat of a Tory rebellion from the right wing of the party, who wanted tougher legislation. However, the prime minister still faces further obstacles, with a number of peers indicating they will propose further amendments to water the bill down in the Lords.

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What the key people are saying

Rev Justin Welby, Lord Sharpe of Epsom, and Tory grandee Ken Clarke. (Alamy/Reuters/UK Parliament)

The Archbishop of Canterbury: The Most Rev Justin Welby suggested the government was outsourcing the country’s “legal and moral responsibilities”. The Anglican leader claimed “a pick-and-choose approach to international law” would undermine the UK's international standing. He suggested he could seek to block the bill later, but thought it would be best to wait until the upcoming third reading.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom: Home Office minister Lord Sharpe of Epsom had a very different take, arguing that stopping illegal immigration is a priority for the public and that the country needs a deterrent to do so. Contrary to Rev Welby's view, he said supporting the bill was the "moral course" and the "humane thing to do".

Ken Clarke: Former home secretary Ken Clarke supported the government's last Rwanda bill, but told peers he couldn't support the plan now, after the Supreme Court ruled the asylum policy as unlawful in November. He said overriding this judgement would be a "very dangerous constitutional provision".

Why it matters

Wherever you stand on asylum seekers crossing the Channel to the UK, it is an issue that affects countless lives one way or another.

Those who support the Rwanda bill argue the country has been too soft on people smugglers and that the deterrent of not being granted asylum in the UK and instead being deported to Rwanda will help break the criminal gangs' business model. Already the government has paid £240m to the Rwandan government, with a further payment of £50m expected in the 2024-25 financial year.

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame has suggested the country could return the money if the plan collapses, but the nation also clarified it is under "no obligation" to do so, which will add pressure on Sunak to make policy a success, particularly as the Conservative Party trails behind in the polls on an election year.

Those against the bill view it as inhumane and ineffective, arguing that criminalising someone seeking refuge based on their mode of arrival betrays a key principle of asylum, with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) previously saying it "is not compatible with international refugee law".

Additionally, opponents of the bill argue there is no clear path to putting the Rwanda plan into action - with Labour MP Jess Phillips pointing out in the Commons that the bill is a huge waste of taxpayers money - accusing MPs who backed the bill of supporting a plan that earmarks "£169,000 per Rwanda deportee".

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meets with students taking part in a personal development lesson as he visits Haughton Academy in Darlington, north east England, on January 29, 2024 to outline plans for the banning of single use vapes. The UK will introduce legislation to ban disposable e-cigarettes in order to tackle a rise in youth vaping, announced Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on January 29, 2024 during a visit to a school in Darlington. Health experts welcomed the proposal, with Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty saying the legislation would have
Rishi Sunak says he is determined to make his 'Stop the Boats' strategy a success. (Getty Images)

What happens next?

Now the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill has passed its second reading in the Lords, it will move forward to what is known as the committee stage.

This step involves "detailed line-by-line examination" of separate parts of the bill, such as clauses, until members have made their way through all of it. Every clause has to be agreed to and votes on any amendments can take place. Motions must be passed unanimously, according to the UK Parliament website, meaning a dissenting voice could block an amendment. This may prove a double-edged sword to opponents of the bill.

Once the bill has been reprinted with any new amendments, it will move to the report stage for further scrutiny, when more amendments can be made, after which it will progress to a third reading, giving the Lords a final chance to make amendments if they focus on something that hasn't already been voted on. Usually this stage is used for tidying up the bill, rather than making major changes, according to the Institute for Government.

The bill will then go back to the Commons (where it started) for what's known as the consideration of amendments stage. This is effectively like a game of ping pong between the two houses, where each side makes amendments for the other chamber to consider until the exact wording is agreed upon. The bill then moves to the final stage and is given royal assent, officially becoming law.

Having already made it through a second reading, it is unlikely that the Lords will try to actively block the bill now, especially given the vote on Lord German's wrecking ammendment. It is especially unlikely as Labour peers have a longstanding protocol of not blocking legislation that has already been passed by the Commons, whose members are democratically elected.

Opposing peers are more likely to try and water the law down as much as possible with ammendments, although they may have another trick up their sleeve: They could seek to hold up the process for as long as possible during the "ping pong" stage – potentially until the 2024 general election.