Charter planes ready to fly migrants to Rwanda in weeks, Rishi Sunak says as he warns Lords

Rishi Sunak said his patience had ‘run thin’ as delays to his Rwanda Bill mounted (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)
Rishi Sunak said his patience had ‘run thin’ as delays to his Rwanda Bill mounted (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

Commercial charter planes are on standby to start flying migrants to Rwanda in 10 to 12 weeks, Rishi Sunak said on Monday as he told dissenting Lords holding up the necessary legislation: “Enough is enough.”

As well as taking aim at crossbench and Labour peers, the Prime Minister also targeted the European Court of Human Rights after it dramatically blocked the first Rwanda flight with an 11th hour injunction in June 2022.

The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill is designed to deter boatloads of migrants who have been illegally entering the country after perilous crossings of the Channel, by sending them on a one-way ticket to a new life in Rwanda.

It returned to Parliament on Monday ahead of what is likely to be a late night of back-and-forth votes between the Commons and Lords.

New data on Monday showed that from January 1 to April 21, there were 6,265 small boat arrivals, an increase of 24% on the same period last year. Vietnamese (1,266) and Afghan (1,216) arrivals were the top two nationalities.

Mr Sunak said that an airfield and commercial charter planes have been booked “for specific slots”, once the Bill is adopted finally and processing of the first migrants has been done.

“We are ready. Plans are in place. And these flights will go, come what may. No foreign court will stop us getting flights off,” he said, insisting Parliament would keep voting until the Bill is adopted.

“Our opponents have used every trick in the book to block flights and keep the boats coming. But enough is enough. No more prevarication, no more delay,” the PM added.

He explained: “The first flight will leave in 10 to 12 weeks. Now of course that is later than we wanted. But we have always been clear that processing will take time.

“And if Labour peers had not spent weeks holding up the bill in the House of Lords to try to block these flights altogether, we would have begun this process weeks ago.”

But Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper accused the Government of deliberately delaying the Bill from a month ago “because they always want someone else to blame”.

“It’s time the government stopped chasing gimmicks and adopted Labour’s practical plan to go after the criminal smuggling gangs making millions out of small boat crossings with a new cross-border police unit, new counter-terror style powers and a new Returns and Enforcement Unit to remove those who have no right to be here,” she said.

Ms Cooper 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.”

But Mr Sunak said the Government had recruited 500 “highly trained individuals ready to escort illegal migrants all the way to Rwanda”, with 300 more being trained in the coming weeks.

It had a further 200 dedicated caseworkers ready to deal with any legal challenges to the deportations “quickly and decisively”, while the judicial service had made available 25 courtrooms and identified 150 judges who could provide more than 5,000 sitting days.

The bill was back in Parliament on Monday for another round of parliamentary “ping pong”, with MPs set to reject amendments backed by the Lords.

Mr Sunak said his patience had “run thin” and stressed: “We will sit there and vote until it’s done.”

Peers are expected to ultimately allow the will of the elected Chamber to stand and stop their opposition, but possibly not before raising fresh objections, including over safeguards for Afghan migrants who helped UK armed forces.

But if peers pass exactly the same amendment twice, the Commons would faces the choice of either accepting the change or losing the Bill under a rarely-used process known as “double insistence”.

Some peers were threatening to dig in against the PM’s flagship legislation which one crossbencher branded “post-truth”, because it seeks to declare the central African country as safe for asylum seekers from Britain after the UK’s Supreme Court ruled it was not.

Former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation Lord Anderson signalled that some crossbenchers may continue to support Labour in opposing the bill, and raised the possibility of “double insistence”.

He tweeted: “This ‘post-truth’ Bill asks Parliament to declare that Rwanda is safe (which it isn’t, yet) and will always be safe (which is obviously unknowable).”

Leading lawyer and independent crossbencher Lord Carlile of Berriew said the Rwanda Bill is "ill-judged, badly drafted, inappropriate" and "illegal in current UK and international law".

He told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4: "This is, in my view, the most inexplicable and insensitive day I've experienced in nearly 40 years in one or other House of Parliament. What Rishi Sunak is asking Parliament to do is say that an untruth is a truth.

"The Supreme Court held, for the time being at least, that Rwanda is not a safe country and it is still the case that Rwanda has not implemented all the promises it made in the treaty it reached with the United Kingdom."

But one Cabinet minister said that Rwanda’s capital Kigali was in fact safer than London.

Deputy Foreign Secretary Andrew Mitchell said: "The remarkable regime in Rwanda, over the last 30 years, has come back from the abyss, a country completely destroyed by the genocide.

“It is absolutely extraordinary what the Rwandan government have achieved in all walks of life. It is a safe country.

“And indeed, if you look at the statistics, Kigali is arguably safer than London. So I have no doubt at all about the safety of Rwanda and the efficacy of the scheme."

Mr Mitchell added: “Some of the discussions that have gone on in the Lords about the judicial arrangements, the legal arrangements within Rwanda have been patronising and in my view border on racism.”

The minister was pressed about reports that in 2018, Rwandan security forces opened fire on protesting refugees.

Mr Mitchell told Today that it was "a highly contested incident".

"But the facts are clear. There are enormous numbers of refugees in Rwanda, who are well looked after," he said.

Hammersmith Labour MP Andy Slaughter criticised Mr Mitchell’s London/Kigali comparison as of “incredible crassness and stupidity”.

He added: “It shows how desperate they are to get this failed policy through.”

Last week saw peers amend the Bill yet again to include an exemption for Afghan nationals who assisted British troops and a provision meaning Rwanda could not be treated as safe unless it was deemed so by an independent monitoring body, which would verify that protections contained in a new treaty with Kigali are implemented.

But Mr Mitchell rejected the peers' calls for Afghans who helped British troops to be exempted from the risk of being sent to Rwanda.

He insisted there was a "safe and legal route" available to them to come to the UK and urged the House of Lords to "accept the will" of the House of Commons and the British people.

Mr Mitchell told Times Radio: "We have an absolute obligation to Afghan interpreters, people who served the British Army, served our country during the Afghan crisis.

"But I'm pleased to say that thanks to the scheme that the Government set up, the Arap (Afghan relocations and assistance policy) scheme, something like 16,100 Afghans have been given settlement in the UK.

"So I don't think this amendment is necessary, there is already a safe and legal route for Afghan interpreters and others who served the Army."

Mr Mitchell said he hoped the Lords "will accept the will of the elected House now and let the Bill proceed" as "that is what the British people want".

"We know overwhelmingly that they agree that we need to stop the boats, the Government's got a clear plan, no one else has got a clear plan."

Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman said the Government's Rwanda Bill is "fatally flawed" and has "too many loopholes".

She added: "I don't think it's going to stop the boats, and that's the test of its efficacy."

The Government has vowed to keep Parliament sitting late into the night if necessary to pass the Bill, which it sees as vital to the Prime Minister’s pledge to “stop the boats”.

Peers have repeatedly blocked the legislation with a series of amendments, stretching debate on the “emergency legislation” over more than four months and delaying flights taking asylum seekers to Rwanda.

The Bill is intended to overcome the objections of the Supreme Court by forcing judges to treat Rwanda as a safe country for asylum seekers and allowing ministers to ignore emergency injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights as the Government seeks to address the “small boats” Channel crisis.