Minister declines to guarantee flights to Rwanda will take off before election

Cabinet minister Mark Harper has declined to guarantee that migrant flights to Rwanda will take off before the general election, while Labour attacked the Government’s flagship asylum policy as a “gimmick”.

Parliament is currently considering the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, which seeks to compel judges to regard the east African country as safe in a bid to clear the way to send asylum seekers who cross the Channel in small boats on a one-way flight there.

The Government will on Monday seek to overturn in the Commons changes made to the Bill in the House of Lords earlier this month.

The Bill will pass between the two Houses of Parliament, in what is known as “ping-pong”, until they can reach agreement on its wording.

A delay of the second stage until after Easter in April could infuriate some Tory MPs who would see it as a weakening of ministers’ commitment to getting flights quickly off to Kigali.

Mr Harper said it was the Government’s “intention” for flights to take off before the election, but would not give a firm guarantee.

With Rishi Sunak having this week ruled out a May 2 vote, the general election is expected in the latter half of 2024.

Timing of next general election: key dates
(PA Graphics)

“We will hopefully have the legislation in place shortly once it’s finished going through Parliament.

“The Home Office team has been working very hard on making sure all the operational matters are in place once that legislation is on the statute book.

“And we are going to work very hard to make sure that we can get those flights away as quickly as we can to send out that message to break the backs of those organised crime groups. That is our intention.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper (Lucy North/PA)

Mr Sunak has made “stopping the boats” a key pledge of his leadership, with the Rwanda plan central to it.

The cost of the stalled scheme could soar to half a billion pounds, plus hundreds of thousands more for each deportee, a recent investigation by the public spending watchdog found.

The plan, which is yet to see a flight take off after a series of legal setbacks, could cost taxpayers nearly £2 million for each of the first 300 asylum seekers sent to Rwanda, according to the National Audit Office.

Rishi Sunak
The Rwanda policy is a key plank of Rishi Sunak’s plan to ‘stop the boats’, as he believes it will be a deterrent to further Channel crossings (Leon Neal/PA)

The Labour frontbencher said: “This plan, this proposal from the Government is really a gimmick costing over half-a-billion pounds.

“It would actually be cheaper to put up the failed asylum seekers in the Paris Ritz for a number of years than this scheme.

“Obviously the Government are going to get their legislation through, they’ll get flights taking off, but it’s something like less than 1% of the total number of asylum seekers, yet costing half-a-billion.”

He continued: “I think it’d be much better and more prudent to use that money, that half-a-billion pounds, and put that money into a proper cross-border policing operation.”

“We think there is a better way to spend that money in order to put in place the policing and security services that we think are able to go after these gangs, smash these criminals smuggling gangs, and bring order to the border there,” the politician added.

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