Tory MPs are at loggerheads as competing factions engage in last-minute lobbying efforts to try to change Rishi Sunak’s flagship Rwanda legislation before it is published in the coming days.
The prime minister is due to announce a new bill as soon as this week, which Downing Street says will deal with concerns raised last month by the supreme court over the government’s scheme to send asylum seekers to east Africa. It follows the signing of a new treaty with Rwanda on Tuesday by the home secretary, James Cleverly, in Kigali.
By Tuesday night, sources said Sunak had still not made a final decision on whether the Rwanda bill would override the Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights in an attempt to get the scheme off the ground.
While centrist Tory MPs are calling on him to stick by Britain’s human rights commitments, those on the right of the party say they will not accept a new bill unless it explicitly overrides them.
Mark Francois, the chair of the rightwing European Research Group, said the group would not back any new legislation that does not “fully respect the sovereignty of parliament, with unambiguous wording”.
The ERG and two other backbench groups met in Westminster on Tuesday night, after which they announced they would only support the bill if it won the approval of a group of legal experts chaired by the veteran MP Bill Cash, in an echo of the Brexit vote that divided the party.
Moderate MPs have issued their own warnings. Damian Green, the chair of the One Nation group, said on Tuesday: “The UK has for generations been a world leader on human rights … The government should think twice before overriding both the ECHR and HRA and not rush such long-term, difficult decisions.”
Reports said that the government was likely to rule out the most hardline options amid fears that up to 10 ministers could resign if the UK was viewed as overriding international law.
Amid a febrile atmosphere on the Tory benches, Cleverly met One Nation MPs before flying to Kigali on Monday. Rightwing groups say they have not been contacted by the Home Office or Downing Street in the same way, leading some to fear they had lost the argument with the prime minister.
One rightwing Conservative source said: “The government is nowhere to be seen. They are not reaching out to us. There have been no overtures from No 10. And we don’t have anyone in the cabinet. So people are thinking the worst.”
Sunak has said that whatever form the new legislation takes, it will be sufficient to deal with the supreme court’s objections in time for flights to begin taking off by next spring.
The bill is designed to work in conjunction with the new treaty, under which British taxpayers will have to bear extra costs to pay for Rwanda to institute a new asylum appeals process.
The new agreement will mean that the UK will pay for British and Commonwealth judges to preside over a newly established appeals process as well as the costs of all legal fees from anyone sent to Rwanda.
Cleverly’s trip to Kigali this week saw him become the third UK home secretary in 19 months to sign an agreement with the Rwandan government.
So far ministers have handed over £140m to the Rwandan government but they have declined to disclose how much has been paid out in extra costs as legal battles have raged over whether the scheme should go ahead.
Asked if there would be additional money for the new treaty, Cleverly said: “The financial arrangement which inevitably comes as part of an international agreement reflects the costs that may be imposed on Rwanda through the changes that this partnership has created in their systems – in their legal systems and their institutions.
“No money was asked for by the Rwandans for this treaty. No money was provided to the Rwandans for this treaty. Dealing with migration is important and it is not a cost-free option, but we regard it as the right thing to do.”
He added: “The UK and Rwanda are working on this because it is important, not because it is easy nor because it buys you cheap and quick popularity.”
The new treaty means British and Commonwealth judges will preside over a newly established appeals process within Rwanda’s high court for exceptional cases.
People sent to Rwanda will have free legal assistance funded by the taxpayer throughout the process. The Rwandan government has said no one will be removed to any other country other than to the UK, resulting in a situation where asylum seekers who commit crimes in Rwanda could be deported to the UK.
Experts paid for by the UK will be seconded to Rwanda to assist with the processing of asylum decisions.
The Home Office claims that the treaty enhances the functions of a monitoring committee in Rwanda.
Rwanda’s foreign affairs minister, Vincent Biruta, said the country had been “unfairly treated” by the courts, international organisations and the media. He suggested “internal UK politics” may have played a role.
New Home Office figures show there are now 28,318 asylum seekers in the queue potentially facing removal to Rwanda.