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Rwanda: 'We can as a nation do better', says Archbishop of Canterbury as bill passes latest Lords hurdle

The Archbishop of Canterbury has again slammed the government's plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, telling the House of Lords: "We can as a nation do better than this bill."

Speaking in the upper chamber, the Most Rev Justin Welby said the government was "continuing to seek good objectives in the wrong way", leading the country down a "damaging path" by insisting on pushing forward with its legislation.

And he accused ministers of seeking to "outsource our legal and moral responsibilities for refugees and asylum seekers".

The Lords nodded through the bill's second reading tonight, but the legislation is likely to face a tougher challenge at the committee stage, when amendments can be put forward by peers to change it.

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Earlier this month, MPs approved the Rwanda bill, which aims to deport asylum seekers coming to the UK on small boats to the African nation as a deterrent from making Channel crossings.

But Rishi Sunak faced a backlash from his own benches, with around 60 Tory rebels voting to toughen up the law and 11 of his MPs voting the whole bill down.

It will now need the full approval of peers, many of whom have already publicly spoken out against the bill - especially around its ability to disapply human rights law and to ignore rulings made by the European Court of Human Rights to halt deportation flights.

The plan has already faced its first defeat in the upper chamber, after the Lords voted against the ratification of the UK's new treaty with the country - part of the government's plan to address the fears of the Supreme Court, who ruled the scheme unlawful late last year.

But it passed its second reading this evening, mostly due to a convention for the unelected chamber not to create barriers to legislation from elected MPs at this stage.

A plot by Liberal Democrat peers - who total 80 in the Lords - to ignore the practice and vote against it anyway has failed to get the backing of other colleagues, with it losing by 84 votes to 206.

But it has not stopped prominent figures in the Lords from speaking out against the plan all afternoon and evening.

Mr Welby, who as one of the 26 bishops of the Church of England is allowed to sit in the Lords, said the Rwanda bill "obscures the truth that all people, asylum seekers included, are of great value".

He added: "It is damaging for asylum seekers in need of protection and safe and legal routes to be heard. It is damaging for this country's reputation... It is damaging in respect of constitutional principles and the rule of law.

"And most of all, my lords, it is damaging for our nation's unity in a time when the greatest issues of war, peace, defence and security need us to be united."

Mr Welby said the "right way forward though is to enable the unity on ends to be translated into a unity on means", adding: "The challenge of migration is... long term and global, and so must our response be.

"We need a wider strategy... for refugee policy which involves international cooperation and equips us for the far greater migration flows, perhaps 10 times greater, in the coming decades as a result of conflict and climate change and poverty

"Instead this bill offers only ad-hoc one-off approaches."

While Mr Welby said he would not vote against the bill at second reading, he and his spiritual colleagues take their "revising role seriously".

Others speaking out against the bill included the Tory former chancellor Lord Clarke, who said it went "a step too far" to secure his support, and Labour's former home secretary, Lord Blunkett, who said the legislation was "virtue signalling... to a particular part of the electorate and to find scapegoats for government failure".

Speaking for the government, Tory minister and advocate general for Scotland, Lord Dirleton, stood by the bill, saying it was a "shared objective" of peers to "stop the boats" and "doing nothing is not an option".

He said: "There is nothing generous about letting the status quo continue, that would only serve the deplorable people smugglers to facilitate these dangerous crossings.

"It would only put more lives at risk and it would continue to strain our communities and our public services."

But there were jeers from some peers when Lord Dirleton claimed the new legislation made it clear Rwanda was "a safe country", and further unsettled noises when he said, while "novel", the provisions in the bill could be implemented "in line with both our domestic law and our international obligations".

Labour's shadow minister, Lord Ponsonby, outlined his party's opposition to the bill, telling peers: "This is the third time in as many years that the government has asked this house to consider legislation to stop boat journeys and to reform the asylum system.

"The third year of being presented with increasingly rushed, unworkable and inhumane solutions to the problem of small boats and asylum."

But despite Labour's issues - especially over the bill "threatening the UK's compliance with international law" - Labour did not join the Lib Dems in voting it down at this stage.

However, the peer leading the plan to vote down the bill at second reading, former leader of the Welsh Lib Dems, Lord German, said: "The treatment of asylum seekers and refugees... is completely contrary to how we should be acting as a country with a reputation for protecting individuals rights and freedoms where the rule of law is upheld.

"It was the settled will of this house last week that the treaty cannot yet be ratified, so how can this house consent to a bill which relies on that treaty having the approval of this house?"