Sunak blames Labour for missing spring deadline for Rwanda flights

Sunak blames Labour for missing spring deadline for Rwanda flights

Rishi Sunak has acknowledged he will miss his self-imposed spring target for getting the Rwanda scheme off the ground but insisted: “We will start the flights and we will stop the boats.”

The Prime Minister said “enough is enough” and MPs and peers will sit through the night on Monday if necessary to get the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill passed.

But Mr Sunak acknowledged it will still be 10 to 12 weeks before the first plane carrying asylum seekers takes off.

After that, there will be “multiple flights a month through the summer and beyond”.

He blamed Labour opposition to the plan for the delay, although his own Government had not taken earlier opportunities to rush the legislation through Parliament.

Only now has he decided that Parliament will sit for as long as it takes to end the deadlock between the Lords and Commons over the Bill, which is aimed at making the plan to send asylum seekers on a one-way trip to Rwanda legally watertight.

Taking aim at Sir Keir Starmer’s party, Mr Sunak said it will be a choice at the general election between “one party that’s going to deliver” on stopping the boats and a Labour Party that has “actively tried to frustrate us at every turn”.

Mr Sunak believes the Rwanda plan could finally act as a deterrent to people seeking to cross the English Channel in small boats if they know they could end up being sent to east Africa rather than being allowed to remain in the UK.

Rishi Sunak London visit
Rishi Sunak said ‘enough is enough’ as he promised flights to Rwanda will get off the ground in 10-12 weeks (Toby Melville/PA)

“We can’t keep playing this whack-a-mole strategy, dealing with it in a piecemeal fashion,” he said.

“You need a systematic deterrent, that’s why the Rwanda scheme is so important.”

At a Downing Street press conference, Mr Sunak acknowledged that the 10-12 week delay means flights will take place “later than we wanted”.

But he said if Labour peers “had not spent weeks holding up this Bill”, then “we would have begun this process weeks ago”.

The Government had previously insisted a decision not to press ahead with further votes on the Rwanda Bill before Parliament’s Easter recess at the end of March would not delay flights.

A further round of parliamentary “ping-pong”, where the Bill is batted back between the Commons and Lords, could also have taken place last week.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the Government “could have passed this Bill a month ago if they had scheduled it then, but, as we know, Rishi Sunak always looks for someone else to blame”.

“This is costing the taxpayer half-a-billion pounds for a scheme that will only cover 1% of asylum seekers,” she added.

Mr Sunak said the Rwanda scheme is “one of the most complex operational endeavours” the Home Office has carried out.

A man thought to be a migrant moves his belongings while he is housed at Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent
A man thought to be a migrant moves his belongings while he is housed at Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent (Gareth Fuller/PA)

He said: “To detain people while we prepare to remove them, we’ve increased detention spaces to 2,200. To quickly process claims, we’ve got 200 trained, dedicated caseworkers ready and waiting.

“To deal with any legal cases quickly and decisively, the judiciary have made available 25 courtrooms and identified 150 judges who could provide over 5,000 sitting days.”

Mr Sunak promised that “once the processing is complete, we will physically remove people”.

There is an airfield “on stand-by”, commercial charter planes have been booked “for specific slots”, and 500 “highly-trained individuals” are ready to escort illegal migrants all the way to Rwanda, with 300 more expected to be trained in the coming weeks.

There has been widespread speculation that the Home Office has found it difficult to find a commercial partner to carry asylum seekers, because of the controversy surrounding the scheme.

The first attempt to send asylum seekers to Rwanda in 2022 was scuppered by an injunction from the European Court of Human Rights.

Suella Braverman visit to Rwanda
Former home secretary Suella Braverman described the Rwanda plan as ‘fatally flawed’ (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Mr Sunak made clear that not only had the Strasbourg institution amended its procedures, the Government had “put beyond all doubt that ministers can disregard these injunctions”, with clear guidance that civil servants must obey their political bosses.

“No foreign court will stop us from getting flights off,” he said.

Former home secretary Suella Braverman said leaving the European Convention on Human Rights is the only way to escape the court’s jurisdiction.

The legislation is “fatally flawed” and has “too many loopholes”, she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

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.

On Monday, MPs are expected to vote to overturn those changes before sending the Bill back to the House of Lords, where some peers may attempt to insist on their amendments again.

Deputy foreign secretary Andrew Mitchell suggested some peers’ opposition to the plan could “border on racism” and that the Rwandan capital, Kigali, is “arguably safer than London”.

Asked about the Lords’ monitoring body proposal, Mr Mitchell told Today: “Some of the discussions which have gone on in the Lords about the judicial arrangements, legal arrangements within Rwanda, have been patronising and, in my view, border on racism, so we don’t think it’s necessary to have that amendment either and that the necessary structures are in place to ensure that the scheme works properly and fairly.”

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said: “No amount of soundbites or spin can change the fact that the Conservatives’ Rwanda scheme is a colossal failure.

“Millions of pounds and years of Government attention have already been wasted, with absolutely nothing to show for it.”

The Refugee Council said the Rwanda plan is unlikely to work as a deterrent, describing it as something which will “only compound the chaos within our asylum system, all at an exorbitant cost to taxpayers”.

Enver Solomon, the council’s chief executive, said: “Even if, as the Prime Minister asserts, there is to be ‘a regular rhythm of multiple flights every month’, this will still only correspond to at most a few thousand people a year out of tens of thousands.

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