Rishi Sunak admits there is no firm date for his pledge to ‘stop the boats’

PM also refuses to tell MPs whether any airlines have agreed to his controversial Rwanda flights

Archie Mitchell,Adam Forrest
Tuesday 19 December 2023 18:20 GMT
No 'firm date' on when government will stop the boats, Rishi Sunak admits

Rishi Sunak has admitted he does not know when he will be able to “stop the boats”, insisting there is no “firm date” on the promise he made.

The PM made stopping migrant crossings in the English Channel one of his five key pledges in January, but has so far failed to deliver on it and three other promises.

Grilleds by parliament’s powerful liaison committee, Mr Sunak said he does not have “a precise date” for when the crossings will stop. “We will keep going until we do [stop the boats],” he insisted.

The Tory leader also refused to tell the senior MPs if any airline had agreed to Rwanda deportation flights, amid reports the government is struggling to find a partner.

In an often tense exchanges with the heads of select committee heads on Tuesday, Mr Sunak said he remained “highly confident” he will be able to deport asylum seekers to the east African nation under the scheme.

And the Tory leader stressed that the “deterrence” effect of the policy, which would see those arriving across the channel put on one-way flights to Rwanda, will work to cut arrivals.

Home affairs committee chairman Diana Johnson grilled Mr Sunak over the plans, saying: “I understand that no airline is willing to actually contract with the government to remove people to Rwanda because of reputational damage. Is that correct?”

Home affairs committee chairman Dame Diana Johnson grilled Rishi Sunak over his Rwanda plans
Home affairs committee chairman Dame Diana Johnson grilled Rishi Sunak over his Rwanda plans (PA)

Mr Sunak said he would not comment on “commercial conversations”, but stressed he is “highly confident that we can operationalise the [Rwanda] bill in all its aspects”.

The PM also refused to provide further details of how much will be spent on the scheme, which has seen zero asylum seekers deported since being unveiled by Boris Johnson last April.

Mr Sunak again stressed that details of the government’s deal with Rwanda are “commercially sensitive”, insisting that disclosing the cost yearly to parliament offered “the appropriate level of transparency”.

Labour attacked the PM’s inability to say when he would fulfil the stop the boats pledge. Shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock said: “A year on from making his public pledge, Rishi Sunak has just admitted there is no firm date by which he will meet his target to stop the boats.”

Launching a defence of his record on small boat crossings, Mr Sunak said: “We will keep going until we [stop the boats]. This isn’t one of these things when there’s a precise date estimate on it, this is something where before I took this job they had only ever gone up, now they’re down by a third.”

Rishi Sunak appearing before the Commons Liaison Committee
Rishi Sunak appearing before the Commons Liaison Committee (PA Wire)

Meanwhile, home secretary James Cleverly said the government will “not be able to rely” on its treaty with Rwanda if key elements of the agreement are not in place. But he told peers that the African country has a “reputational incentive” to make the deal work.

Mr Cleverly was unable to tells peers Lords international agreements committee what progress had so far been made on putting practical elements of the treaty, such as appointing international judges to sit in a new asylum appeals court, into practice.

“This is a country that is willing to move very, very quickly,” said the home secretary. “But, ultimately, if the elements of the treaty are not in place, then obviously we will not be able to rely on the treaty for the purposes of asylum process.”

Mr Cleverly also said the Rwanda policy on its own will not stop small boat crossings. And he insisted that the number of asylum seekers who could come to UK from Rwanda under a reciprocity clause was “single digits”.

Mr Sunak was unable to tell MPs say when he would clear the backlog of total asylum claims, which stood at 109,442 cases at the end of November.

He pledged to clear the backlog of “legacy” cases made before the end of June 2022 by the end of 2023. By November it had fallen by nearly three quarters to just over 18,000. But the rest of the backlog, applications made on or after the end of June, continues to rise, reaching 91,000 at the end of November.

Asked when the overall backlog would be cleared, the PM refused to offer a date, saying: “We haven’t set a target for that publicly but obviously the priority was clearing the initial legacy asylum backlog.”

Aside from overseeing a halving in the rate of inflation, the PM ends the year having failed on all the other measures; reducing national debt, cutting NHS waiting lists and growing the economy.

Mr Sunak was asked at the committee hearing if he ever lies awake at night worrying about inequality. “No,” the Tory leader replied – before adding: “I want to make sure we reduce economic inequality and spread opportunity around the country.”

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