The Government could be open to compromises with rebel Tory MPs unhappy with Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda legislation, the new legal migration minister has said.
The Prime Minister will be hoping to persuade hardliners on the right and MPs from the more moderate wing of the party that the plan to revive his flagship asylum policy will work, even as it emerged the cost of the troubled scheme has already reached £240 million.
Tom Pursglove played down the prospect of a bitter parliamentary battle by saying Tory MPs will back the Bill when it is voted on next Tuesday.
He was forced to defend the cost of the plan as he toured broadcast studios on Friday, a day after being appointed minister for legal migration when Robert Jenrick’s role was split into two following his resignation in protest at the legislation he believed was doomed to fail.
The policy attracted fresh criticism when it was revealed that the UK has given Rwanda a further £100 million this year while flights remained grounded amid a series of legal setbacks, on top of the £140 million previously paid out.
According to a letter from the Home Office to committee chairs on Thursday evening, ministers expect to pay £50 million more next year, bringing the total to £290 million.
Mr Pursglove argued the deportation plan, once up and running, would help bring down the costs of housing asylum seekers in hotels in the UK.
He pointed to Britain’s obligations to ensure “all of the right infrastructure to support the partnership is in place” in the African nation.
“Part of that money is helpful in making sure that we can respond to the issues properly that the Supreme Court raised,” he said.
It’s basically £100m for every Home Secretary trip to Rwanda
Even by the standards of this chaotic & hopeless Tory Government, this is unbelievable https://t.co/GCjqVYLzR8
— Yvette Cooper (@YvetteCooperMP) December 7, 2023
But opposition parties reacted furiously to the disclosure, with the Liberal Democrats branding it an “unforgivable waste of taxpayers’ money”.
“The fact that this Government is content to squander millions on this totally unworkable white elephant of a policy tells you everything you need to know about their priorities,” Lib Dem home affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said.
The chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee Dame Meg Hillier hit out at the lack of transparency over the costings, saying they had only been revealed after repeated inquiries.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it “almost looks like the Government has got something to hide”.
Mr Sunak hopes to rush emergency legislation through Parliament for MPs and peers to declare that Rwanda is a safe destination after the Supreme Court ruled the scheme was unlawful over risks to refugees.
Amid public displays of deep division over the Bill, Mr Pursglove insisted there was a “unity of purpose on the Conservative benches in Parliament that we need to address this issue” of small boats carrying asylum seekers to UK shores.
“Undoubtedly, there are different views on aspects,” he told Today.
“But I think in terms of that mission, we recognise that these crossings of the Channel are completely unacceptable.”
Signalling ministers’ willingness to engage with those unconvinced by the Bill, Mr Pursglove told Sky: “There will be parliamentary debates, there will be opportunities for people to bring amendments, the House will consider them in the normal way and as ministers we will engage constructively with parliamentarians around any concerns that they have and handle that in the way that we would any other piece of legislation.”
But, ultimately, he said: “I think colleagues will support the passage of this legislation.”
One element adding to some Tory MPs’ unease were warnings by senior lawyers, as reported by The Times, that the legislation remains at risk of failure by allowing migrants to challenge their removal by identifying reasons that Rwanda is unsafe for them personally.
Mr Pursglove, who will not attend Cabinet unlike new illegal migration minister Michael Tomlinson, argued that such individual appeals could only be brought in a “very narrow set of circumstances” and that the new law is “robust”.
“The legislation closes off so many of the grounds that people have come forward with in raising claims about being sent to Rwanda previously,” he said.
I’m blocking the reasons used to prevent flights to Rwanda from taking off.
This emergency law is the only way to make Rwanda work and control our borders. pic.twitter.com/jH0iaODZGw
— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) December 7, 2023
MPs will get their first chance to debate and vote on the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill on Tuesday, but its next stages are thought to be unlikely to happen before Christmas.
Even if rushed through the Commons, it is expected to face serious opposition in the House of Lords.
Mr Pursglove could not give details on timings, telling ITV’s Good Morning Britain the whips and the leader of the House would set out a timetable.
“You’ve got to have consideration in both Houses of Parliament and that does take some time.”
The newly-appointed minister said “it’s not acceptable” for peers to complain about illegal migration “and to then not get in and back measures” to tackle the issue.
Under the Government’s plan, first unveiled in April 2022, people who arrive in the UK by irregular means, such as on small boats, could be sent on a one-way trip to Rwanda, where the Kigali government would decide on their refugee status.
The new Bill seeks to compel judges to treat Rwanda as a safe country after the Supreme Court ruled the scheme was unlawful over risks to refugees.
The legislation gives ministers the powers to disregard sections of the Human Rights Act, but does not go as far as allowing them to dismiss the European Convention on Human Rights.
Tory hardliners may seek to beef up the Bill by calling for it to effectively override international law – something Mr Jenrick and former home secretary Suella Braverman have called for.