James Cleverly’s flight of fantasy with new Rwanda treaty – as Tory MPs plot rebellion

Home secretary becomes third minister in less than two years to sign deal with African state as he decrees it’s now safe and legally sound – but Rishi Sunak faces Commons revolt over new law

Kate Devlin,Adam Forrest,Holly Bancroft
Wednesday 06 December 2023 09:42 GMT
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James Cleverly signs new asylum treaty in Rwanda

Home secretary James Cleverly has hailed yet another deal with Rwanda as the way to rescue the government’s thwarted plan to stop the boats – only for it to be denounced as a “gross political fantasy”.

The embattled cabinet minister said there was now no credible legal reason for the policy to continue to be blocked after he flew to Kigali to sign a new treaty.

But Mr Cleverly still could not guarantee flights will depart next spring, as Rishi Sunak hopes, as he became the third minister in less than two years to sign an agreement with the African nation.

Tory MPs warned they would examine new emergency legislation on Rwanda – due to be published within days to determine the country is a safe destination – to ensure planes carrying asylum seekers take off.

It came as the prime minister faces a major Commons revolt from two sides of his party over the planned new law. MPs on the right of the party are pushing the PM to use it to opt out of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) – warning he must go for the “full fat” version to stop judges intervening.

Home secretary James Cleverly arrives at Kigali International Airport

But senior Tory moderates are also warning Mr Sunak they may not support his legislation if he does try to flout the ECHR, arguing that it would be “a mistake” that doesn’t command public support.

As the treaty was unveiled, it emerged that:

  • Asylum seekers sent to Rwanda who go on to commit serious crimes while there could end up back in the UK
  • UK taxpayers will have to pay more on top of the £140m already spent on a scheme which has yet to send a single asylum seeker to the east-central African country
  • The UK will take some of Rwanda's refugees under the plans, a measure contained in the original agreement
  • Rwanda will still have a veto over which asylum seekers it accepts
  • Those sent there will be offered support and accommodation by the UK for five years
  • Under the treaty, they will not be sent on to a third country, such as the one from which they fled – the main criticism of the Supreme Court – and will stay in Rwanda

Mr Sunak announced the new treaty – and the emergency legislation – in the wake of a damning Supreme Court judgment which ruled his plans unlawful.

In the Rwandan capital, Mr Cleverly praised the new deal, saying: “We feel very strongly this treaty addresses all of the issues of their lordships in the Supreme Court.”

But he could not guarantee when the first flight of asylum seekers would take off. The home secretary added: “We want to see this part of our wider migration plan up and running as quickly as possible.”

James Cleverly during Tuesday’s press conference in Kigali

Under the treaty, those sent to Rwanda will stay there, no matter the outcome of their asylum application. The Supreme Court had warned that under the previous system, vulnerable refugees risked being erroneously sent back to the countries from which they had fled, where they would face persecution.

Also included in the treaty are plans for UK lawyers to be sent to Rwanda to help process claims and ensure appeals are granted correctly.

An independent monitoring committee will assess the processing of asylum claims and the treatment and support for individuals for up to five years. It will also establish a new whistleblowing system to allow asylum seekers sent to Rwanda to lodge confidential complaints.

Tory MPs on right – including members of the New Conservatives, Commons Sense Group and European Research Group – will convene a “star chamber” of legal experts to decide with the upcoming Rwanda legislation is tough enough to support.

Mark Francois, chair of the ERG, said Mr Sunak’s plan B bill – expected to be set out on Thursday – must “fully respect the sovereignty of parliament” by getting around international law.

However, Tory moderates in the ‘One Nation’ caucus – which boasts around 100 MPs – have urged Mr Sunak to remain committed to both the ECHR and the UK Human Rights Act.

They too have warned of rebellion. Stephen Hammond, deputy chair, said moderate MPs would “struggle to support a so-called full-fat” option of flouting the ECHR.

Its chair Damian Green said Mr Sunak “should think twice before overriding both the ECHR and HRA”, while leading moderate Matt Warman said overriding the ECHR would be a “red line”.

Right-wing MP Simon Clarke, who wants to opt out of the ECHR, fired back at the moderates by tweeting: “Failing to stop the boats would be a red line for a number of Conservatives – namely our voters.”

Mr Sunak is said to have ruled out the most hardline option of opting out of the ECHR. But he will try to appease the Tory right by disapplying parts of the Human Rights Act, according to The Times – described as a “middle way” option.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper accused Mr Cleverly of being the third home secretary in 18 months to take a trip to Rwanda “for a photo op”.

Priti Patel signed the initial deal last April while his predecessor, Suella Braverman, visited Kigali earlier this year. “More home secretaries than asylum seekers have been sent there and the scheme is badly failing,” Ms Cooper said.

“We know … even if it ever does get off the ground, it will only cover a very small number of people when over 1,000 people arrived in small boats last week alone.”

James Cleverly and Rwandan minister of foreign affairs Vincent Biruta

The government’s former top lawyer Jonathan Jones questioned whether ministers were really as confident as they suggested.

He said: “If the government were really confident that the treaty did the trick and Rwanda will now be “safe”, it could be confident of winning any further court challenge and wouldn’t need to change the law as well.

But the government has said it will table a Bill which will likely tell the courts that Rwanda is now to be treated as “safe” for the purposes of asylum claims.”

Lib Dem home affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said: “It was obvious that this policy was destined to fail from the beginning, and this couldn't have been made any clearer than the Supreme Court ruling.

“The Conservatives have already spent far too much time, energy and money on this failing policy. It’s time for James Cleverly to get serious and get on with fixing the broken asylum system.

“Tackling the sky-high asylum backlog and creating safe and legal routes for sanctuary will make far more progress towards that than this pet project policy ever could.”

Prime minister Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda plans are being closely watched by his MPs

The Law Society of England and Wales was sceptical about Mr Cleverly’s assurances, saying it “remains unclear” how the treaty will overcome the Supreme Court ruling based on a “well-established principle of international law”.

Nick Emmerson, the president of the professional association representing solicitors, argued that neither the deal nor new legislation “can overnight provide adequate means of safeguarding the rights of people removed to Rwanda”.

Steve Valdez-Symonds, from Amnesty International, said: “With this treaty, ministers are once again doubling down on a fundamentally reckless policy of not processing asylum claims made in the UK – even while expecting other countries to deal with the asylum claims they receive.

“The policy of not processing claims has already created a massive, costly and inhuman backlog, in which tens of thousands of people are now simply stuck in limbo.

“The gross political fantasy that Rwanda can simply receive these people from the UK is utterly immoral, wholly impractical and sets a terrible example on the world stage.”

Enver Solomon, from the Refugee Council, said: “It’s time for the government to admit that the Rwanda plan just isn’t the right way forward. Instead, we need to develop a fair and compassionate approach to refugee protection that focuses on providing safe routes and a fair hearing for those seeking safety in the UK.”

Last month, former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption accused the government of trying to “change the facts by law” by declaring Rwanda safe. He also said the scheme was “probably dead”.

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