Rishi Sunak vows 'nothing will stand in the way of Rwanda flights' as minister warns 'legal challenges are inevitable'

23 April 2024, 06:55 | Updated: 23 April 2024, 08:22

Rishi Sunak said nothing would stand in the government's way
Rishi Sunak said nothing would stand in the government's way. Picture: Alamy/LBC

By Kit Heren

Rishi Sunak has vowed that nothing will stop the government getting migrant flights off to Rwanda after the controversial bill finally passed on Monday night - but a minister also warned of "stumbling blocks" ahead.

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The bill's passing late on Monday night followed weeks of parliamentary deadlock between the Lords and Commons.

The Prime Minister’s emergency legislation - which he called "a fundamental change in the global equation on migration" - was passed in the Lords after a drawn-out evening of parliamentary 'ping pong'.

Mr Sunak said on Tuesday morning: "The passing of this landmark legislation is not just a step forward but a fundamental change in the global equation on migration.

"We introduced the Rwanda Bill to deter vulnerable migrants from making perilous crossings and break the business model of the criminal gangs who exploit them. The passing of this legislation will allow us to do that and make it very clear that if you come here illegally, you will not be able to stay.

Illegal Migration minister says planes going to Rwanda 'don't have to be that full'

"Our focus is to now get flights off the ground, and I am clear that nothing will stand in our way of doing that and saving lives."

But illegal immigration minister Michael Tomlinson told LBC's Nick Ferrari that he thought legal challenges would be unavoidable.

"There are those who determined to ensure that this policy will not work," he said.

"There will be challenges, I think it’s inevitable. People are already talking about legal challenges, people are going to put every single stumbling block in our way to try to make this policy not work."

Watch Again: Nick Ferrari is joined by Illegal Immigration Minister Michael Tomlinson | 23/04/24

Charities Freedom from Torture, Amnesty International and Liberty, have all criticised the passing of the bill and claimed it goes against international law.

A spokesperson for the organisations said: "We all deserve the chance to live a safe life, and to seek protection when we need it most. This shameful Bill trashes the constitution and international law whilst putting torture survivors and other refugees at risk of an unsafe future in Rwanda."

Mr Tomlinson did not comment on the numbers of migrants expected to be on Rwanda flights, but pointed to repatriation planes to Albania as an example of relatively low numbers that built up over time.

He said: "It doesn't have to be huge numbers to build up over a course of time, as we've seen small numbers on regular flights to Albania. And now thousands have been sent."

Watch Again: Nick Ferrari is joined by Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper | 23/04/24

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.

Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, said that while Labour "wouldn't do the Rwanda scheme" if it gained power.

She told LBC's Nick Ferrari: "But what we would do is have a proper returns and enforcement unit that would include flights that would include returns to for people who have failed asylum cases that are currently not being returned because those returns have dropped by nearly 50 since the last Labour government.

Ms Cooper added that "part of our plan is to make sure that those who don't have a right to be in the UK should be swiftly returned".

In its final parliamentary round, the Lords won a concession from the government which sought to ensure asylum seekers who had worked with the British armed forces abroad were not deported to Rwanda.

In a bid to see the legislation through, the government promised to re-evaluate any rejected claims of those from Afghanistan under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) scheme.

The Rwanda Bill is poised to become law after passing through the House of Lords.
The Rwanda Bill is poised to become law after passing through the House of Lords. Picture: Alamy

After whittling down the initial list of amendments to just one, cross-bencher Lord Anderson conceded it was time to back down on Monday evening.

MPs had rejected an amendment from the Lords detailing that Rwanda could not be treated as safe until an independent monitoring body declared it so, as the government declared it "almost identical" to the previous ones overturned.

Lord Anderson said that while some may have “wished us to keep on fighting” there was little point in doing so.

"The time has come to accept the primacy of the elected house and withdraw from the fray," he told the House of Lords.

The bill will now head for Royal Assent and then officially become law.

The Rwanda plan 'will work' says former Chief Immigration Officer

Home Secretary James Cleverly praised the bill's success on Monday as a "landmark moment in our plan to stop the boats".

In a video posted to social media, he said: "The Safety of Rwanda Bill has passed in Parliament and it will become law within days.

"The Act will prevent people from abusing the law by using false human rights claims to block removals. And it makes clear that the UK Parliament is sovereign, giving Government the power to reject interim blocking measures imposed by European courts.

"I promised to do what was necessary to clear the path for the first flight. That's what we have done.

"Now we're working day in and day out to get flights off the ground."

However, human rights groups have condemned the legislation as a "breach of international law".

The charity Freedom from Torture, alongside Amnesty International and Liberty, warned the bill poses "a significant threat to the rule of law" by undermining what protects people from an abuse of power by the state, and described Parliament as a "crime scene".

It comes after Mr Sunak insisted earlier on Monday that the first deportation flights to Rwanda will leave "in 10 to 12 weeks”.

He told reporters that the government has "an airfield on standby and booked commercial charter planes".

"No ifs, not buts, these flights are going to Rwanda," he said.

He indicated that once the programme in up and running the planes there will be a "regular rhythm" of flights heading to Kigali.

The bill was stuck in parliamentary ping pong.
The bill was stuck in parliamentary ping pong. Picture: Alamy

Mr Sunak told a press conference on Monday: "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.

"The Strasbourg court has amended their rule 39 procedures in line with the test set out in our Illegal Migration Act. And we've put beyond all doubt that ministers can disregard these injunctions with clear guidance that if they decide to do so, civil servants must deliver that instruction and most importantly, once the processing is complete, we will physically remove people.

"And to do that, I can confirm that we've put an airfield on standby, booked commercial charter planes for specific slots and we have 500 highly trained individuals ready to escort illegal migrants all the way to Rwanda, with 300 more trained in the coming weeks.

"This is one of the most complex operational endeavours the Home Office has carried out. But we are ready, plans are in place and these flights will go, come what may.

"No foreign court will stop us from getting flights off."

Mr Sunak described the scheme as a "genuine game changer".
Mr Sunak described the scheme as a "genuine game changer". Picture: Alamy

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.

Downing Street is hostile to the idea of making concessions to secure the passage of the bill, leading to a deadlock with the Lords.

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.

Mr Sunak has already expressed his frustration, saying last week his patience with those blocking the bill had "run thin", adding: "No more prevarication, no more delay. We will sit there and vote until it's done."

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.

Crossbench peer and former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation Lord Anderson has raised this possibility and described the legislation as a "post-truth bill" that asks Parliament to declare Rwanda is safe when, he argued, it is not.

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