Sunak insists Rwanda flights will be in the air by July, ‘no ifs, no buts’

Rishi Sunak has pledged to get flights to Rwanda in the air by July, despite the threat of legal challenges and delays even if he does manage to force the controversial asylum bill through parliament overnight.

The prime minister insisted asylum seekers will be sent to the east African nation in 10 to 12 weeks “come what may” and that regular trips will take place over the summer.

But he faced an agonising final hurdle of ping-pong between MPs and the House of Lords, and the upper house will spend the evening trying to exact two key amendments.

MPs and campaigners warned that Mr Sunak’s flagship policy, if successfully passed, could still be set back by legal challenges from individuals, as well as the civil service union which is concerned about breaching international law.

Labour condemned the hundreds of millions of pounds already spent on the scheme as an “extortionate gimmick”, while former home secretary Suella Braverman said so few people would actually end up in Rwanda that it would not work as an efficient deterrent.

Kicking off a long day of political wrangling, Mr Sunak threw down the gauntlet to peers in a surprise press conference on Monday, saying: “Parliament will sit there tonight and vote, no matter how late it goes; no ifs, no buts, these flights are going to Rwanda.”

Lords have been trying to force the government to exempt Afghans who supported British troops overseas from being deported to Rwanda. They had also pushed an amendment that would make sure a monitoring committee assesses Rwanda to be safe before flights take off.

The government has so far refused to cave to pressure and include the changes to the bill. MPs rejected both amendments in their first vote on Monday evening.

Labour peers will rally this evening in support of the suggested amendments, leaving the cross-bench peers with the power to further delay the bill or let it pass.

Sunak threw down the gauntlet to peers in a surprise press conference (Reuters)
Sunak threw down the gauntlet to peers in a surprise press conference (Reuters)

Cross-bench peer Lord Carlile said that the Lords were ready to “keep going as long as necessary” to amend the “ill-judged and inappropriate” bill.

Labour peer Lord Dubs said: “If the government can’t win the votes, it’s because a lot of Conservatives [peers] didn’t bother and a lot of cross-bench and LibDems decided they didn’t like the bill.”

Asked if the peers were going to dig in, he said: “I certainly hope so.”

Referring to the Afghan amendment, he added: “Who can be more loyal to Britain than these Afghans, and what are they [Rishi Sunak’s government] going to do when they get here? Send them to Rwanda.”

Mr Sunak revealed on Monday that the government has already booked commercial charter planes for specific slots to remove migrants to the east African country. The prime minister added that some 500 people had already been trained for the job of removing people, and there were 2,200 spaces ready in detention.

Refugee charities are preparing to support any asylum seeker who is chosen to be on the first few planes to challenge their deportation. While the bill closes off options for legal challenges to the legislation, asylum seekers can bring individual claims based on their own personal circumstances.

The civil service union FDA is also considering whether they will be able to challenge ministers’ plans to force civil servants to potentially act against a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights – in the event that the Strasbourg court issues an injunction against a flight.

Sir Robert Buckland, former Tory secretary of state for justice, told The Independent that there will “inevitably be individual legal challenges”. However, he felt that the likelihood of an intervention from the ECHR “has probably receded” due to new guidelines issued to the judges, which have raised the threshold for issuing injunctions.

Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper labelled the Rwanda scheme “an extortionate gimmick”. She added: “The prime minister knows this scheme won’t work, that’s why he tried to cancel it when he was chancellor, and why even now he won’t say how many people will be on the token flights.”

Shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock said that the legislation was a “sham”, a “con of a bill”, adding: “The plan is as unworkable as it is unaffordable.”

Former home secretary Suella Braverman said that leaving the ECHR would be the only way to try and get the plan off the ground. She said that the bill was “fatally flawed” and had “too many loopholes”.

Nigel Farage said Mr Sunak was raising “the rhetoric” but not delivering results. He added: “Do I believe that in 10 to 12 weeks’ time, there’ll be planes taking off with significant numbers of migrants on board? No, I don’t.”

UN experts also warned on Monday that airlines and aviation regulators could be complicit in “violating international protected human rights and court orders by facilitating removals to Rwanda”.

Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said that even if Mr Sunak manages to get flights off the ground “this will still only correspond to at most a few thousand people a year”. He added that nearly 52,000 individuals are in the UK without their asylum claims being processed because of the way they’ve arrived in the country.

“Instead of giving these people a fair hearing on UK soil to determine if they have a protection needed, the government will have to look after them indefinitely, at considerable cost,” he said.