Rishi Sunak stakes his reputation on Rwanda plan

Prime Minister says new bill will block all previous reasons used to prevent flying asylum seekers to African country

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the revival of the Rwanda scheme would upset some people but was still necessary. EPA
Powered by automated translation

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has insisted a new law to revive the Rwanda scheme will end the “merry-go-round of legal challenges” by blocking “every single reason that has ever been used to prevent flights” to the African country.

Mr Sunak said the bill would “upset some people” but it was necessary to address the Supreme Court's concerns about the plan and finally get flights off the ground.

The Prime Minister has staked his reputation on devising a way to “stop the boats” but his authority has been damaged by the resignation of immigration minister Robert Jenrick, who claimed the bill does not go far enough.

Former home secretary Suella Braverman also warned the bill would need to override international conventions to succeed. On Wednesday she said the Conservative Party faced “electoral oblivion” if it failed to go far enough on Rwanda.

The Prime Minister called the press conference to speak directly to the nation as he sought to restore his authority over his own party following the resignation of Mr Jenrick and earlier sacking of Mrs Braverman.

In his speech on Thursday, he attempted to minimise the differences between his position and those on the right of the party who would like the legislation to set aside international agreements such as the Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Doing so, he said, would jeopardise the treaty his government had signed with Rwanda as part of the plan to address the concerns of the Supreme Court, which had ruled the scheme was unlawful.

The legislation is part of a two-pronged approach by Mr Sunak to breathe new life into the Rwanda deportation plan.

Since being advanced by former prime minister Boris Johnson’s administration in 2022, it has been repeatedly held up by European and UK courts, culminating in its rejection last month by the Supreme Court.

The court said the government was unable to ensure that asylum seekers were protected from being sent back to countries where they could be at risk of persecution.

The first part of the plan was completed on Tuesday, when Home Secretary James Cleverly signed a treaty with Rwanda providing guarantees that deportees would not be returned to their home countries.

'Restore trust'

At a hastily arranged Downing Street press conference on Thursday, Mr Sunak said the government's proposed new immigration law would “restore people's trust that the system is fair”.

When pressed if he would call a general election if he failed to pass the Rwanda legislation through Parliament, he said: “We’ve got to finish the job and I’m going to see this thing through.

“I’m confident I can get this thing done.”

He pointed out that the number of people crossing the English Channel illegally has fallen by a third this year. Almost 28,000 have made the journey so far this year, compared with 45,755 in 2022.

The Prime Minister said: “Today the government has introduced the toughest anti-illegal immigration law ever.

“I know that it will upset some people and you will hear a lot of criticism about it, so it's right to explain why I have done this.”

He said his family “came here legally” and “like most immigrants, they integrated into local communities”.

He added: “It's not a given. Illegal immigration undermines not just our border controls, it undermines the very sense of fairness that is so central to our national character.

“We play by the rules, we put in our fair share, we wait our turn. Now if some people can just cut that out, you've not just lost control of your borders, you fatally undermine the very fairness on which trust in our system is based.”

But Mr Sunak said the Safety of Rwanda Bill “blocks every single reason that has ever been used to prevent flights to Rwanda from taking off”.

“The only extremely narrow exception will be if you can prove with credible and compelling evidence that you specifically have a real and imminent risk of serious and irreversible harm,” he said.

He said failing to recognise that would “undermine the treaty” signed with Rwanda.

The government in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, has stressed the need for the new UK legislation to be compatible with international law.

Mr Sunak said: “If we go any further, the entire scheme will collapse and there is no point having a bill with nowhere to send people to.”

He insisted a ballot on the new legislation would not be a vote of confidence in his government and would not carry a threat of expulsion from his party for those who defy him.

He said the vote “is about confidence in parliament to demonstrate that it gets the British people's frustration”.

Mr Sunak said Mr Jenrick was wrong to say the Prime Minister will not keep his promises on immigration, insisting the differences between him and his critics amounted to merely “an inch”.

He said of Mr Jenrick: “No, he’s simply not right, actually.

“For the people who say ‘you should do something different’, the difference between them and me is an inch, given everything that we have closed. We’re talking about an inch.

“That inch, by the way, is the difference between the Rwandans participating in this scheme and not.”

Sunak’s asylum plans a ‘dark day’ for Britain, warns Humza Yousaf

The immigration plans are a “real dark day” for the country, Scotland’s First Minister said as he accused the Prime Minister of dismantling asylum processes.

Humza Yousaf, whose grandfather came to Scotland from Pakistan in the 1960s to work in a sewing machine factory in Clydebank, addressed the issue during First Minister’s Questions on Thursday.

“It’s a real dark day for the UK – a country that once welcomed immigrants, including my grandfather to the country, in fact, begged him to come and others to come to work in their factories, to drive buses, due to the labour shortages that were seen at that time,” Mr Yousaf said.

He also took aim at Labour as he accused successive governments at Westminster of watering down migration policies.

“What successive UK governments have done – Labour and Conservatives – is they have, bit by bit, dismantled our immigration and indeed our asylum processes,” Mr Yousaf said.

“On immigration, the latest announcements mean that we’re asking – the UK government is asking – migrants to come here to look after our own family members but doing so by abandoning their own family members back home.

“On asylum, the UK government has virtually eliminated any practical legal route for those that are fleeing war or persecution.

“The policies of the UK government in this respect are not only morally repugnant, but they are economically illiterate.

“The SNP, the Scottish government, values migration. We value the importance of it to our social fabric but also to our economy, and let me say unequivocally that in Scotland, the Scottish government will always say that we are proud of the benefits that migrants bring to this country, and we are proud that they have chosen Scotland to be their home.”

Updated: December 08, 2023, 5:05 AM