MPs must back Sunak’s deportation plan because it is the only game in town

Rishi Sunak hosts a press conference
Rishi Sunak hosts a press conference

On Tuesday, the House of Commons will debate the Safety of Rwanda Bill, the Government’s response to the Supreme Court ruling against the plan to remove those arriving illegally on small boats to the east African country. MPs should back the Bill, rather than let the best be the enemy of the good.

The Bill deems Rwanda a safe place to send those arriving illegally. It disapplies the key provisions of the Human Rights Act. It prevents the UK courts from relying on interim measures from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg as grounds for blocking removal.

Could it be more robust? There is always a measure of risk that the judiciary will find the means to frustrate legislation, and the Bill leaves open the possibility that the individual circumstances of a case could render a migrant at particular risk, even though Rwanda is generally regarded as safe. The Bill would, however, put the Supreme Court in a deeply uncomfortable position if it sought to rely on such narrow grounds. The trend of the current Supreme Court has been far less creative and interventionist than its predecessors. I suspect that it would need truly exceptional circumstances to bar removal.

If MPs wish to tighten up the drafting, the time to do so is at the Committee Stage of the Bill, not at Second Reading on Tuesday. Equally, I doubt the kind of “belt and braces” ouster clauses being mooted will be as effective as some think. Ousting the effect of international treaties is pointless, unless Parliament also ousts all the legislative and common law prohibitions on torture which underpin them – which would be wrong, and haemorrhage support for the Bill.

So, I urge colleagues to back the Bill. The former Supreme Court justice, Lord Sumption, says that the UK courts would have to give effect to the Bill. However, he doubts the Strasbourg Court would let it stand. I’m not so sure, but in any case it is the right “dialogue” to have with Strasbourg, and when we are reasonable and resolute – as we were over prisoner voting – Parliament’s view has prevailed.

We are making wider progress on this issue of huge importance to the public. Small boat crossings by Albanians are down by 90 per cent on last year. Other countries, including Denmark and Italy, are looking to copy the UK model. If we can get the first flights to Rwanda in the air with this legislation, it would give the strategy a fillip – demonstrating progress in the face of every obstacle thrown in the Government’s way. This is a challenge that will be overcome with incremental strides, not in one fell swoop, so keeping up momentum is critical.

The Rwanda plan can only be one element of an effective strategy to tackle the small boats, not least because the Rwandan government is unlikely to be willing to take more than a few thousand illegal migrants each year – and 44,000 arrived in the year ending June 2023. Detaining every illegal migrant in indefinite administrative detention would be wrong, and quickly become unviable.

So, we need more partnership agreements with other countries, and additional operational measures, to establish a meaningful deterrent. For all the tough political talk on removals, there has been a striking lack of imagination and resolve when it comes to prevention. The use of drone technology to identify small boats before they leave France, coupled with improved bilateral enforcement cooperation, would make a big difference.

If France won’t raise its game, the UK should consider using technology, the Navy and mobile barriers to prevent small boats crossing the median line of the Channel, while offering to take those on small boats back to the French coast in safety – to avoid claims the UK is rendering them “in distress” contrary to international maritime law.

Finally, the politics of this are clear. The Conservatives can unite behind the Prime Minister, show the public we are determined to turn the tide on small boats, and demonstrate that Labour lacks the will to tackle them. Or we can fight among ourselves, fail the public, and put a big, fat, smile on Keir Starmer’s face.

Dominic Raab MP is a former deputy prime minister, justice secretary and foreign secretary

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