Sunak told new Rwanda plan has ‘50% chance at best’ of working

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Ministers were warned by government lawyers that Rishi Sunak’s legislation to revive his Rwanda asylum plan has a “50 per cent chance at best” of enabling flights to take migrants to the African country next year, officials briefed on the discussions said on Friday.

The government insisted the bill, which will be voted on by MPs next Tuesday, would “ensure” that asylum seekers who arrive in Britain by clandestine means would be put on flights to Rwanda.

But advice from the government’s legal department to ministers said there was a significant risk of the European Court of Human Rights blocking flights.

The assessment that there was a “50 per cent chance at best” of flights taking off was first reported by the Times, and confirmed on Friday by people involved in the discussions.

One of these people told the Financial Times: “It’s worth remembering that government lawyers have been highly optimistic before that we’d win in the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.” The government’s asylum plan was ruled unlawful in both courts.

Sunak’s legislation states that ministers could ignore any interim injunction by the Strasbourg court to stop a flight taking off, although such a move would be legally contentious and provoke anger from moderate “One Nation” Tory MPs who want Britain to uphold its international obligations.

One person briefed on the official government legal advice said that if ministers ignored so-called Rule 39 injunctions issued by the Strasbourg court, they would be breaching international law. “The government is tying itself in knots,” they added.

A government insider said: “We don’t comment on or share government legal advice and it would be very wrong for anyone recently departing government to do so.

“Ministers are reassured that this bill goes as far as it can within international law and therefore ensures we can get flights off to Rwanda next year.”

Robert Jenrick resigned from his post of immigration minister on Wednesday on the grounds that Sunak’s legislation was too weak, and on Friday gave more details on his reasons for quitting.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he said the legislation, if approved by MPs, would not end the “merry-go-round of legal challenges that prevent small boat arrivals being swiftly removed in sufficient numbers to create a meaningful deterrent”.

Sunak has made “stopping the boats” that carry asylum seekers across the English Channel one of his key pre-election pledges, and his legislation is intended to overcome the Supreme Court ruling last month that found Rwanda was not a safe country to which migrants could be sent.

MPs will be asked to give the bill its crucial second reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday, in a major test of Sunak’s authority.

Rumours have swirled around Westminster about letters of no confidence in Sunak being submitted by Tory MPs to party grandees.

On Thursday, Conservative chair Richard Holden said a leadership contest would be “insanity”. The Tories have changed leader twice since they won the 2019 election.

Some rightwing Tory MPs critical of Sunak’s legislation believe it will pass its second reading, probably with many Conservative abstentions, but there will be attempts to amend the bill later in the parliamentary process.

Labour is expected to put forward a so-called reasoned amendment to the bill, offering key reasons why MPs should reject it.

If 29 Tory MPs vote against the bill alongside opposition parties, Sunak’s government would be defeated.

Meanwhile the government is facing questions over the cost of the Rwanda asylum plan after a top civil servant revealed that London has paid Kigali an extra £100mn this year.

Two influential groups of MPs have summoned Sir Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary at the Home Office, to answer questions after he disclosed in a letter that Rwanda was paid £100mn in April.

The funds come on top of £140mn already provided as a downpayment by the UK towards the Rwanda asylum scheme last year.

Both the Rwandan government and Home Office confirmed on Friday that the payment had been scheduled as part of the original agreement between the two countries in April 2022.

The UK is expected to make another £50mn payment next year, which would raise the overall cost to £290mn.

MPs want to know why the full costs were not disclosed earlier, and why additional payments have been made when the plan has yet to be implemented.

“This looks like a much larger commitment and to fund what exactly?” asked Dame Diana Johnson, Labour chair of the Commons home affairs select committee.  

Together with the Commons public accounts committee, her group has asked Rycroft to answer questions on Monday.

Tom Pursglove, one of two new immigration ministers, said the Rwanda payments should be seen in the context of the £8mn the government is spending each day to accommodate asylum seekers in hotels, and as part of efforts ultimately to bring down costs.

“I think it is the right investment to get into a much more sustainable position as part of our overall package addressing the Channel crossings,” he told the BBC.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the rise in costs of the Rwanda scheme was “just incredible”. 

“The Tories’ have wasted an astronomical £290mn of taxpayers’ money on a failing scheme which hasn’t sent a single asylum seeker to Rwanda,” she added.

“How many more blank cheques will Rishi Sunak write before the Tories come clean about this scheme being a total farce?”

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