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Rwanda bill explained: What is the government’s controversial immigration plan?

Rishi Sunak defended his fresh legislation amid questions about his authority over the Conservative Party

Christopher McKeon
Tuesday 12 December 2023 08:04 GMT
Rishi Sunak announces Rwanda bill that ‘ends merry-go-round’ of immigration legal challenges

Rishi Sunak has introduced legislation and staged an emergency press conference in a bid to salvage his Government’s Rwanda policy and reassert his authority over a fractious Conservative Party.

Last month, the Supreme Court ruled the policy was unlawful and could not go ahead as it was, concluding there was a real risk that genuine refugees sent to Rwanda could be returned to their home country, where they would face “ill-treatment”.

In an effort to address the court’s concerns, Home Secretary James Cleverly travelled to the country’s capital Kigali on Tuesday to sign a fresh treaty before setting out details of the accompanying Bill in the Commons on Wednesday.

But the Bill does not go as far as dismissing the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) altogether, as hardliners on the Tory right, including sacked home secretary Suella Braverman, have demanded.

Below, we answer the key questions on the policy, the latest split in the Conservative Party and whether it could lead to a general election.

What is the Government’s latest Rwanda plan and how has it changed?

The Prime Minister has pinned his hopes on soothing the Supreme Court’s concerns by agreeing a new legally binding treaty with Rwanda and putting forward laws which ask Parliament to confirm it believes the African nation is a “safe country” in a bid to cut the chances of blocking future flights.

Home Office officials say the treaty centres on preventing what is known as “refoulement”, where asylum seekers are removed and returned to a country where they face persecution, to satisfy concerns raised in the Supreme Court’s findings.

The agreement, which needs to be ratified by the UK and Rwandan parliaments to make it internationally binding, seeks to make sure the country does not remove migrants and send them back to their home country, or another country, after they have arrived from the UK.

A new appeals process will also be established within Rwanda’s high court to handle exceptional cases – for example, if someone living in the country under the scheme commits a crime – if the Government decides it will seek to deport the asylum seeker.

British and Commonwealth judges, as well as Rwandan judges, will preside over the appeal court hearings. Rulings will decide whether an asylum seeker remains in Rwanda or is sent back to the UK.

Home Secretary James Cleverly meeting Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs Vincent Biruta (Getty Images)

The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, published on Wednesday, compels judges to regard the country as “safe” and disapplies sections of the Human Rights Act and international law.

Asylum seekers could still challenge deportation based on their specific individual circumstances, but would not be able to make a generic argument that removal to Rwanda presented a general risk of refoulement.

There is also a possibility that a court could declare that the legislation is incompatible with the Human Rights Act, but this would not automatically stop the law’s operation.

Mr Sunak said on Thursday that the legislation will ensure his flagship asylum scheme “cannot be stopped” as he battles the issue of small boats crossing the Channel.

Why are the Tories split on Rwanda?

There are several causes of the Conservative split over Rwanda. The first is a genuine difference on policy, with those on the right of the party prioritising national sovereignty and a desire to “stop the boats” and those on the left emphasising the rule of law and the UK’s international obligations.

The key focus here is the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which the right of the party believes the UK should leave altogether, but there are other treaties such as the Refugee Convention that the UK has signed up to.

As well as differing positions on the ECHR, the Conservatives’ floundering position in the polls has heightened the division within the party.

A significant chunk of Tory MPs believes that reducing immigration, and particularly ending the scenes of asylum seekers arriving on Kent’s beaches, will be key to narrowing Labour’s lead and wants to see the Government do everything possible to achieve that.

The Government, however, argues that the proposed Bill goes as far as it can as the Rwandan government will pull out of a deal that involves leaving the ECHR altogether.

Will there be an election?

An election on this issue in the near future looks unlikely for the time being. Mr Sunak declined to say if he will call an election if his Rwanda legislation fails to make it through Parliament, saying only he is “confident I can get this thing done”.

He also said the vote on his Bill will not be a “confidence matter”, meaning Tory MPs who vote against it will not be thrown out of the party and he will not be obliged by convention to call an election if he loses the vote.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Rwanda president Paul Kagame (PA Archive)

However, calling an election on the Rwanda policy remains a possibility. Even if Mr Sunak does not explicitly make next week’s vote a confidence issue, it may be difficult for him to carry on if he is unable to force through this flagship legislation.

The House of Lords could also pose a significant stumbling block. If it chooses to block the Bill – something it has not done for two decades – Mr Sunak will be unable to pass the legislation without calling an election and including it in his manifesto.

Who could replace Rishi Sunak as leader?

A leadership challenge before the next election still appears unlikely, despite rumours of mounting disquiet among the right of the party. Even if there are enough disgruntled Tories to trigger a vote of no confidence – which requires 53 MPs to call for one – there are not enough votes to actually win one.

However, should the Conservatives lose the next election Mr Sunak will face enormous pressure to resign.

In such an event, several candidates appear to be positioning themselves to become the standard bearer for the party’s right wing. These include Suella Braverman and Robert Jenrick, who have both been outspoken on Rwanda, as well as former home secretary Dame Priti Patel and current Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch.

It has also been rumoured in Westminster that former Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage could join the party and stage a bid for the leadership.

This appears incredibly unlikely. Mr Farage would have to join the party, get selected as a candidate and win election as an MP (something he has so far failed to do on seven occasions). By this time, the party will already have a new leader, meaning he would need to wait until they quit or attempt to overthrow them and win a new leadership contest.

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