Ministers have been warned by a former head of the judiciary that plans to let the UK ignore rulings from the European court of human rights (ECHR) on small boat crossings could be defeated in the House of Lords.
John Thomas, who was lord chief justice of England and Wales from 2013 to 2017, said the move would probably amount to a “symbolic breach of the rule of law”.
He criticised the government for caving in to a group of hard-right Tory MPs who had threatened to launch a rebellion next week during the final parliamentary stages of the illegal migration bill.
About 30 backbench rebels have been pushing Rishi Sunak to harden the legislation so ministers can ignore interim rulings.
One of the Strasbourg court’s rule 39 injunctions blocked the government’s first attempt to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda last year. These interim measures are typically used to suspend an expulsion or extradition, often in the case of asylum seekers who fear persecution if they are returned to their home country.
Lord Thomas expressed concern that amendments, expected to be published on Thursday, would be tabled by the government to the illegal migration bill in advance of the crunch vote next Tuesday. “I think it is a very serious step for the government to be contemplating putting into force,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Defending the principle of the ECHR, he said the fact of interim decisions in some cases “does not in any way detract from the importance of a judgment being made by a court”.
Ignoring a ruling would be an “immensely serious step”, said Thomas, adding it “sets an extraordinarily bad example”.
If the bill clears its final hurdles in the Commons next week, he suggested it risked being defeated in the Lords.
Thomas said: “Many people would say having the power to ignore a court order is something – unless the circumstances were quite extraordinary – this is a step a government should never take because it is symbolic of a breach of the rule of law.”
Days of wrangling between the group of prospective Tory rebels – led by the backbencher Danny Kruger – and Sunak and the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, ended on Wednesday.