Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Rishi Sunak admits Rwanda deportations delayed until summer

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Rishi Sunak has admitted that his showpiece policy to deport asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda will miss his original spring deadline, with the first flights not expected until July.

The prime minister’s latest timetable for the start of Rwanda flights sparked speculation among Labour and Conservative MPs that they may be timed around a possible summer general election.

As he stepped up his bid to win parliamentary approval of the legislation underpinning the Rwanda plan, Sunak vowed that flights would leave “every month” until they had deterred undocumented migration across the English Channel.

“The first flights will leave in 10 to 12 weeks,” Sunak said at a Downing Street press conference on Monday. He had previously promised that the flights would begin in the spring.

Labour campaign strategists believe Sunak could be forced to call a summer election to head off a potential Tory putsch against his leadership, if the party suffers heavy losses in local polls on May 2.

They suspect that by promising Rwanda flights in July, Sunak might either call an election in June — vowing to start the flights if he won — or could make them part of a July poll strategy.

“The policy isn’t going to work as a deterrent,” said one ally of Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader. “Sunak might think it’s better to have an election before people realise that.”

Sunak is also scheduled to attend a Nato summit in Washington in July, allowing him to burnish his credentials as an international statesman, and could have some good economic news with some economists anticipating inflation could fall below the Bank of England’s 2 per cent target by then.

Sunak’s allies insist the prime minister is planning for “an autumn election”: that would allow time for a tax-cutting mini Budget and potentially for the central bank to start cutting interest rates.

The government argues that the Rwanda policy will deter people from taking small boats that have ferried thousands of irregular migrants across to the UK in recent years.

But opposition parties depict it as an expensive and ineffective gimmick on a politically explosive topic, with people arriving in small boats likely to far exceed those being deported to Rwanda.

“The success of this deterrent doesn’t rest on one flight alone,” Sunak said, promising “a regular rhythm of multiple flights every month over the summer and beyond, until the boats are stopped”.

Home Office data shows that 6,265 people have arrived in small boats so far this year, a 25 per cent increase compared with the same period in 2023.

Sunak said commercial charter planes and hundreds of trained staff were ready to take asylum seekers to Africa and that an airfield had been earmarked for the purpose.

He said he would force MPs to sit on Monday — possibly into the early hours of Tuesday — until a protracted stand-off with the House of Lords over the Rwanda legislation was settled.

Sunak blamed Labour for holding up the bill and delaying the start of deportation flights.

Government insiders had hoped the legislation, which declares the African nation “safe” for asylum seekers in a bid to fend off judicial challenges, would complete its parliamentary passage last week.

But the plan has been strongly criticised by government opponents on the left and right.

MPs on Monday evening voted to remove amendments to the legislation that were approved by peers last week.

Peers later approved an amendment stating that Rwanda can only be declared a safe country if the home secretary consults an independent monitoring body about the African nation’s status.

Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, described the government plan as “an extortionate gimmick”, noting that it would cost more than £500mn to send just 300 people to Kigali.

Nigel Farage, honorary president of the rightwing party Reform UK, attacked the policy on X as a “con job from the Tories” that would be blocked by the courts.

Sunak admitted there had been a tenfold increase in the number of vulnerable Vietnamese migrants paying criminal gangs to enter the UK this year.

“The truth is, we need innovative solutions to address what is a global migration crisis to disrupt the business model of people-smuggling gangs. And that means a systematic deterrent,” he said.

Sunak accused Labour of having “no plans” for irregular migration. “They are resigned to the idea that you will never fully solve this problem,” he said. “Be in no doubt about the choice that the country will face later this year.”

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