Rwanda asylum bill will be voted through, says UK minister

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Rishi Sunak expects to win a key vote on his Rwanda bill on Wednesday but opposition from Tory rebels threatens to undermine his authority within the party.

“It is going to get through tonight,” illegal migration minister Michael Tomlinson told the BBC on Wednesday. “What you will also see this afternoon is a united determination to make sure this Rwanda policy works.”

Sunak was hit by the biggest rebellion of his premiership on Tuesday after 60 backbench Tories backed an amendment seeking to “toughen up” the proposed legislation by blocking asylum seekers from trying to prevent their removal under international human rights law.

Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith resigned as Tory deputy chairs before they were sacked in order to vote for the amendment, as did Jane Stevenson, formerly a ministerial aide.

If it became law, the highly contentious Rwanda bill would see migrants who arrived in the UK by small boat sent to the central African country to have their asylum requests processed.

The government believes this would act as a strong deterrent, as it seeks to convince voters that it will slash irregular migration ahead of the election this year.

Sunak — who won Tuesday’s vote thanks to the backing of Labour and other opposition parties — faces another threat to his authority on Wednesday evening as MPs decide whether to vote against the legislation at its third reading.

In remarks that will have embarrassed the prime minister, Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, said on Wednesday that there were limits on how long his country would wait for flights to bring migrants from the UK, adding that “if they don’t come, we can return the money”.

Rwandan government spokesperson Yolande Makolo said that “under the terms of the agreement, Rwanda has no obligation to return any of the funds paid”.

She added: “To talk about figures at this point is premature, as we are still awaiting the conclusion of the UK legislative process and remain committed to making the partnership work.” 

The UK has so far sent £240mn to Kigali for the scheme.

Asked about Kagame’s comments, a Downing Street spokesperson said “our focus is on securing the progress of the bill through the house and we’re confident in our ability to do that”.

Although the legislation is widely expected to scrape through, a defeat would deal Sunak a stinging blow.

MPs will vote on further amendments to the legislation on Wednesday, including one put forward by Robert Jenrick, who resigned as immigration minister last month, which would compel ministers to automatically ignore so-called pyjama injunctions — last minute decisions by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

With none of the amendments expected to pass, MPs are likely to vote on the legislation at its third reading on Wednesday evening. If 27 Tories vote against it, the government will be defeated.

Miriam Cates and Danny Krueger, who lead the rightwing New Conservatives group, wrote to members of their caucus saying they intended to vote against the bill. “There is still time in this parliament to bring back a bill that works,” they said.

The government has offered a series of concessions in the hope of staving off further revolt.

These include a commitment to publish guidance explaining that civil servants would not breach the Civil Service code, which sets rules on how public officials should conduct themselves, if ministers overruled injunctions from the ECHR to block an asylum seeker being sent to Rwanda.

Justice secretary Alex Chalk has also set out plans to increase capacity in the courts to expedite asylum decisions.

One Tory rebel said: “Changing the civil service rules is a win for us, but it’s not the same as legislation. They are responding to pressure, but it’s not enough.”

Meanwhile, Sunak faced questions in parliament about the reported disappearance of 85 per cent of the 5,000 asylum seekers earmarked for removal to Rwanda.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “Where are they? He hasn’t got a clue where they are, has he? I’ll tell you where they aren’t: Rwanda.”

Register for the FT’s subscriber webinar on January 24 2024 (1300-1400 UK time) on The Migration Debate: a challenge for liberal democracies?

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