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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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Lords Focussing On "Best Interests" Of Children In Plans To Amend Rwanda Bill

Rishi Sunak defends Government's Rwanda deportation plans (Alamy)

4 min read

A Labour peer is considering changes to Rishi Sunak's Safety of Rwanda Bill that focus on increasing protections for children as the contentious legislation to declare Rwanda a safe country makes its way through the House of Lords.

Ahead of the Bill returning to the upper house next week, Baroness Ruth Lister has put her name to amendments relating to unaccompanied children which would force ministers to seek independent advice on how best to protect the welfare of children who may be deported to Rwanda with their families under government plans to tackle illegal migration.  

The issue of protections for children was already discussed at length when the Illegal Migration Act – the legislation that the Safety of Rwanda Bill seeks to underscore – made its way through Parliament last year.

Speaking during the Second Reading of the Rwanda Bill in the Lords at the end of last month, Lister said that she had a number of concerns, including “the incompatibility of the treaty and Bill with our international obligations, the treatment of LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and of children, and the widespread scepticism about claims of a supposed deterrent effect”. 

The Safety of Rwanda Bill aims to revive the government's plans of deporting asylum seekers to the African country, after earlier plans were blocked by the courts on human rights grounds. 

It has been brought to Parliament alongside a new treaty with Rwanda, which seeks to guarantee the country's safety. 

Lister told PoliticsHome that she would not “want to predict at this stage how far the amendments would get” in the parliamentary process, but she thinks its “so important” that “parliament has the opportunity to really consider what is in the best interests of children”. 

One of the amendments she has put her name to – alongside the Bishop of Chelmsford, crossbencher Baroness Neuberger, and Liberal Democrat Baroness Brinton – seeks to force ministers to consult with the independent Family Returns Panel on "how best to safeguard and promote the welfare of the children of families" who are set to be removed to Rwanda. 

The Illegal Migration Act suspended the use of the panel for cases affected by the Act but Lister believes that "at the very least this panel should advise on any case [...] where an accompanied child is involved to at least ensure that a proper best interest of the child assessment is carried out and everything is done to ensure the welfare of the child". 

The same quartet have also put their names to an amendment that if accepted, would mean anybody who claims to be an unaccompanied child, but whose age is disputed, cannot be sent to Rwanda until any relevant legal proceedings to verify their age have concluded. 

The treaty with Rwanda – which underpins this legislation – says that the agreement “does not cover unaccompanied children and the United Kingdom confirms that it shall not seek to relocate unaccompanied individuals who are deemed to be under the age of 18”. 

Anybody who is relocated to Rwanda but is later “deemed by a court or tribunal in the United Kingdom to either be under the age of 18 or to be treated temporarily as being under the age of 18” shall be returned to the UK. 

The amendment’s explanatory statement says that it is intended to avoid “a situation in which an unaccompanied child is erroneously relocated to the Republic of Rwanda”. 

Lister said that what she is hoping to “achieve by the unaccompanied children amendment is to ensure that no child – no one who is claiming to be a child – is sent to Rwanda until the end of any legal proceedings”. 

Last month, PoliticsHome reported that a document from a Lords committee, which said that the treaty with Rwanda should not be ratified until further guarantees about the country’s safety are in place, could have been the “path” to peers’ revisions of the controversial legislation. 

The legislation is due back in the Lords next week for its committee stage, while the Commons is on February recess. Unlike in the Commons, all suggested amendments can be discussed at committee stage in the Lords, and no time limit on the length of the discussions can be imposed. 

Amendments are not voted on until report stage, which comes afterwards, and is expected later this Spring. 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has warned peers against opposing the legislation, and described his proposals as the “will of the people”, despite low public confidence in the policy

Speaking in January, when the government narrowly avoided a rebellion on a crucial vote on the bill, the Prime Minister said that getting the plans on to the statute book is “an urgent national priority”.

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