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Rishi Sunak has refused to say whether he expects asylum seekers to be sent from the UK to Rwanda before the next election, as his bill aimed at curbing irregular migration heads for more scrutiny in the House of Lords.
The prime minister on Thursday warned peers not to frustrate the “will of the people” by delaying the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) bill, which on Wednesday survived a Tory rebellion to receive its third reading in the House of Commons with a government majority of 44.
But Sunak’s attempt to regain the political initiative at a Downing Street press conference was undermined by further Conservative disquiet over the policy and a rebuke from the UK statistics watchdog over his use of asylum data.
Sunak’s claim that his party had “come together” on Wednesday — only 11 Tory MPs voted against the bill — did little to conceal its deep wounds over the issue.
About 60 Tory MPs this week defied their leader to vote for amendments to toughen up the legislation, and on Thursday rumours swirled on the Tory right that some MPs had submitted letters of no confidence in Sunak.
One rightwing Conservative MP said the mood among colleagues was “dismal” and that some had written letters of no confidence. The MP added that party whips had behaved “unacceptably” in trying to crush the rebellion.
Meanwhile, Sir Robert Chote, head of the UK Statistics Authority, said voters may have felt “misled” by Sunak’s claim that he had “cleared” the so-called legacy backlog of asylum cases.
At the start of this year, the government said it had eliminated the backlog of 92,000 asylum applications until late June 2022, when in fact more than 4,000 cases remained unresolved.
In a letter, Chote wrote that the public was likely to have interpreted Sunak’s claim as meaning the backlog had been “eliminated entirely”. Chote last month rebuked Sunak for wrongly claiming that debt was “falling”.
The prime minister declined repeatedly at his press conference to put a timetable on when the first flights to Kigali would take off, or even whether they would happen before the election this year.
“I want to see this happen as soon as practically possible . . . We are working as fast as we possibly can,” Sunak said, adding that it was vital that the Lords understood “the country’s frustration” on the subject.
The government introduced the Rwanda bill — which is aimed at delivering Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats” crossing the English Channel — after the Supreme Court ruled in November that the removal scheme was unlawful.
Sunak said last year that he wanted the first flights to take off in “spring 2024”, but the legislation is unlikely to conclude its Lords stages until the second half of March.
The prime minister used his press conference to suggest the Lords might hold up the bill, but Labour and Tory insiders confirmed the timetable had been jointly and amicably agreed for its passage through the upper house.
One Labour official told the Financial Times that the Lords would ultimately yield to the will of the elected Commons and let the bill pass, adding: “We don’t block bills.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has made it clear to his peers that he does not want them to block Conservative legislation, fearing that Tory peers might adopt the same tactics if his party wins power later this year.
But that does not mean peers will not try to amend the bill, in what are likely to be passionate debates about Britain’s commitment to international law and human rights.
Lord Alex Carlile, a barrister and crossbench peer, told the BBC that many of his colleagues deplored legislation that declared Rwanda “safe” in light of the Supreme Court ruling.
“We’ve seen, in various other countries, the damage that’s done when governments use perceived and often ill-judged political imperatives to place themselves above the courts,” he told the Today programme.
“This is a step towards totalitarianism and an attitude that the United Kingdom usually deprecates.”
The bill is expected to have its Lords committee stage in mid-February and its report stage in early March, with a third reading expected in the middle of March.
Sunak’s allies are confident Tory MPs will reject the Lords amendments and that the legislation will eventually reach the statute book after a game of “ping pong” between the two chambers in late March.
Members of the One Nation group of moderate Tory MPs confirmed they would not back Lords amendments, even if they sympathised with them. “We will stick to our position that we want the bill as it left the Commons,” said one.
But even after the measure receives Royal Assent, Tory rebels believe the bill will be challenged in the courts and could be subject to mass individual appeals by people seeking to avoid removal.
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