Rwanda bill to become law after months of wrangling

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By Jennifer McKiernan
Political reporter

Rishi Sunak’s flagship Rwanda bill is set to become law after five months of Westminster wrangling.

It designates Rwanda a safe country and is a key part of the government’s plans to send some asylum seekers there.

The bill has been fiercely criticised by opposition parties but after several debates the Lords dropped their objections to it late on Monday.

Mr Sunak has said flights to Rwanda will take off within 10 to 12 weeks, missing his original spring target.

But departures could still be held up in the courts or delays in securing the planes asylum seekers would travel on.

Home Secretary James Cleverly said passing the bill was a “landmark moment in our plan to stop the boats”.

In a video posted to social media, he said: “I promised to do what was necessary to clear the path for the first flight. That’s what we have done.

“Now we’re working day in and day out to get flights off the ground.”

The government plans have been stymied since November 2023, when the UK Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Rwanda scheme was unlawful.

Earlier on Monday, the prime minister said flights were booked to take off as soon the legislation was passed and 500 staff were ready to escort migrants “all the way to Rwanda”.

“Plans are in place. And these flights will go, come what may,” he said, adding he wanted to create “a drumbeat of multiple flights a month… because that’s how you build a systematic deterrent and that’s how you’ll stop the boats”.

Mr Sunak had vowed to keep MPs working through the night if necessary to pass his bill and get flights off the ground.

In the end, after the bill made a couple of trips back and forth between the Lords and Commons, peers decided not to push their opposition to it, with the final debate winding up shortly after midnight.

At the start of the day, peers were holding out for two amendments – the first, from Lord Anderson, was for independent and ongoing verification of the status of the east African country as safe.

The crossbencher said, without that verification, “we’re being asked to complicit in a present-day untruth and a future fantasy”.

He was backed by Lord Carlile who said: “This is something which is ill judged, badly drafted, inappropriate, illegal in current UK and international law, and the House of Lords is absolutely right to say that we want to maintain our legal standards in this country, and there are better ways of dealing with this problem anyway.”

‘An extremely important concession’

The other amendment, from Lord Browne of Ladyton, was on exempting Afghan veterans who had assisted the British military from deportation,

The Labour peer criticised the government’s approach and asked government spokesman Lord Sharpe to repeat an earlier pledge, where he said Afghan veterans with a “credible link” to the Afghan special forces would have their claims reassessed by an independent body and said those with verified claims would not be deported.

Lord Browne said this was “an extremely important concession”, although he had to “trust them at their word” as the pledge did not make it into the wording of the legislation, and he decided to drop his amendment.

Back in the Commons, shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock praised the “tenacity” of his colleagues in the Lords for holding out for what he also called “a significant concession”.

But the government held firm on its outright rejection of the final amendment.

As the bill was once again sent back along the corridors of the Palace of Westminster, Lord Anderson decided to give way.

Speaking at the “funeral” of the last amendment, he said: “The purpose of ping pong is to persuade the government, through force of argument, to come to the table and agree a compromise.

“They have refused pointedly to do so… The time has now come to acknowledge the primacy of the elected house and to withdraw from the fray.”

Royal Assent is expected to be given by King Charles in the next few days, officially passing the bill into law.

It is not just opposition parties who have objected to the government’s Rwanda plan, with human rights groups saying the plan poses a “significant threat to the rule of law” by undermining what protects people from an abuse of power by the state.

The charity Freedom from Torture, alongside Amnesty International and Liberty said in a statement: “We all deserve the chance to live a safe life, and to seek protection when we need it most.

“This shameful bill trashes the constitution and international law whilst putting torture survivors and other refugees at risk of an unsafe future in Rwanda.”

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