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Rishi Sunak hit by Tory civil war over 'emergency' Rwanda legislation as James Cleverly signs treaty

Rishi Sunak was facing mounting pressure from different sides of his party on Tuesday over his "emergency" legislation to declare Rwanda a safe country to deport migrants to.

Centrist Tory MPs fired a warning shot to the Prime Minister that overriding the European Convention on Human Rights to get Rwanda flights going would be a “red line” for them.

One Nation Conservatives, including Damian Green, Stephen Hammond and Matt Warman, issued the warning as the Prime Minister considers legislation coming before parliament "soon" to determine Rwanda a safe destination for asylum seekers and economic migrants who arrive in the UK by small boats.

It comes after Home Secretary James Cleverly signed a legally-binding treaty with the nation over the Government's flagship asylum policy on Tuesday.

Their move signalled a potential battle against Conservative Right-wingers, who are setting up a new "Star Chamber" to decide whether or not to back the new laws.

Home Secretary James Cleverly and Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs Vincent Biruta hold a bilateral meeting after they signed a new treaty in Kigali, Rwanda. (PA)
Home Secretary James Cleverly and Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs Vincent Biruta hold a bilateral meeting after they signed a new treaty in Kigali, Rwanda. (PA)

Members of the right-wing European Research Group (ERG), as well as MPs from the Common Sense and New Conservative groupings, met in Parliament hours after Mr Cleverly signed the treaty. The group have long demanded tough action on both illegal and legal migration to the UK.

ERG chairman Mark Francois said the "star chamber" of lawyers would "examine the Bill in detail to look at the question of whether it fully respects parliamentary sovereignty and whether it contains unambiguous wording that would facilitate planes taking off to Rwanda."

He told Mr Sunak that it would be "unwise" to "bounce" Parliament into backing the legislation without giving MPs a chance to properly assess it.

Meanwhile moderate Boston and Skegness MP Mr Harman stressed: “Overriding the ECHR is a red line for a number of Conservatives.”

Wimbledon MP Mr Hammond tweeted: “The Prime Minister has a tricky task on his hands to balance the economy, labour market, and stopping the boats.

“The package by the Home Secretary yesterday shows this is possible.”

Ashford MP Mr Green, who was Theresa May’s defacto Deputy Prime Minister, messaged: “The UK has for generations been a world-leader on human rights. We have set the standard on what a law-abiding, well-functioning democracy should look like.”

The “emergency” legislation, to declare Rwanda as a safe country to which to deport asylum seekers, is taking longer than expected to be published.

There is believed to be debate within Government over how strongly it should be drafted, with a more radical approach, if adopted, to brush aside human rights and asylum conventions likely to face more difficulty getting through the Lords.

But some Tory Right-wingers are pushing for the more draconian step.

Earlier, the Home Secretary said he cannot guarantee any asylum seekers will be deported to Rwanda before the next General Election after he signed a new treaty with Rwanda on Tuesday.

James Cleverly flew to Kigali to rubberstamp the deal to send asylum seekers and economic migrants who arrive in Britain by “small boats” to the East African country.

Mr Sunak has made an election gamble to deliver a “very significant” cut in net migration within months as his government scrambles to get its the deportation policy up and running.But, asked if he could guarantee people will arrive in Rwanda from the UK before the next election, Mr Cleverly told reporters: “The only thing I can guarantee is the effort that we put in.”

He added: “I see no reasons why there should be any more impairments to doing the right thing, to break the business model of these people-smuggling gangs and for the humane and professional treatment of refugees that Rwanda is offering.”

The Government believes this formal treaty provides the guarantees needed and is stronger than the previous bilateral agreement it had with Rwanda.

But it is yet to be seen whether the new agreement and promised emergency legislation, which is expected this week, will be enough to get the scheme over the line legally.

The Supreme Court declared the Government Rwanda policy unlawful in a damning ruling on November 15.

James Cleverly arriving in Kigali on Tuesday morning (PA)
James Cleverly arriving in Kigali on Tuesday morning (PA)

The nation’s most senior judges warned of the risk that asylum seekers could be sent there from Britain and then returned to the country from where they had fled, even if they might face torture or even death.

Ministers hope by upgrading the Rwanda deal to a treaty, along with so-called “emergency” legislation at home, it will address the concerns raised by the Supreme Court and get deportation flights going before the next general election, expected in the spring or autumn of next year.

Speaking at a press conference following the signing, Mr Cleverly said Rwanda has "established a strong reputation for the humane and professional administration of refugees and migrants".

Mr Cleverly added that the UK was "proud" to be a long-standing partner of Rwanda's endeavour to ensure the "robustness" of its judicial system "is clearly on display".

"Your country has made a clear and unambiguous commitment to the safety of people who come here," he said. "That has been displayed and we have seen that in practice.

"You've also made a strong commitment to work with the UK and international partners in order to make sure that the robustness of your judicial system is clearly on display, and we are very proud to be a long-standing partner in that endeavour."

Rwanda's foreign affairs minister Vincent Biruta said: "I want to reaffirm that the people relocated to Rwanda will be welcomed and that they will be provided both the safety and support they need to build new lives. Rwanda looks forward to further strengthening cooperation with the United Kingdom and to implementing this treaty."

Mr Cleverly is the third Home Secretary to travel to Rwanda in a bid to secure a legally watertight deal. He followed in the footsteps of Priti Patel and Suella Braverman.

So far no asylum seekers have been sent to the country due to the legal battles. The Government has also come under growing pressure from Tory MPs to dramatically cut legal migration levels, after net migration to the UK rose to 745,000 in 2022.

Today's front page (Evening Standard)
Today's front page (Evening Standard)

The Government is also remaining tight lipped about how much more the deal could cost, in addition to the £140 million already paid to Rwanda.

Home Office Permanent Secretary Sir Matthew Rycroft last week told MPs that ministers had decided updated information on costs would be published in the annual accounts in the summer and not made public before then.

After the publication of a five-point plan on this issue, immigration minister Robert Jenrick on Tuesday promised a “very significant reduction in net migration” within months, fuelling speculation that the Conservatives could be preparing the ground for a possible May election.

He said the Government’s new package of measures to deal with immigration was a “big step forward” and action would be taken “as quickly as possible”.

Mr Jenrick told GB News: “It’s going to mean that the public will see in the months and years ahead very significant reductions in net migration.”

However, he admitted that “more things may need to be done” to get net migration down to levels seen in earlier years, even if it is brought down by 300,000 by the Government’s new package. Putting its reputation on the line, he told Times Radio: “People are sick of talk on this topic. It’s a fundamental question of trust in government.”

Ministers, though, are stopping short of putting a time scale on when the first deportation flight to Rwanda will take off. The “emergency” legislation, to declare Rwanda as a safe country to which to deport asylum seekers, was also taking longer than expected to be published.

Home Secretary James Cleverly at the Kigali Genocide Memorial during his visit to Kigali, Rwanda (PA)
Home Secretary James Cleverly at the Kigali Genocide Memorial during his visit to Kigali, Rwanda (PA)

There is believed to be debate within government over how strongly it should be drafted, with a more radical approach, if adopted, to brush aside human rights and asylum conventions likely to face more difficulty getting through the Lords. The five-point plan includes:

* Stopping health and care workers bringing dependants.

* Hiking the skilled worker earnings threshold by a third to £38,700, in line with the median full-time wage.

* Scrapping “cut-price” labour by stopping shortage occupations being able to pay 20 per cent less than the going rate and reforming the shortage occupation list.

* Raising the minimum income for family visas to £38,700 from £26,200, from next spring.

* Ensuring the Migration Advisory Committee reviews the graduate immigration route.

But the Government faces difficult questions over how to fill shortages in the workforce, including in social care.