Rwanda Bill: When could flights actually take off?

The prime minister pledged at the start of 2023 to "stop the boats", with the Rwanda policy forming a key part of his strategy. Credit: PA

Words by Maya Bowles, Westminster Producer

The government's Rwanda Bill faced another setback on Wednesday after an onslaught of defeats in the House of Lords.

As peers voted through seven changes to the Bill, it will now return once again to the Commons, as the "ping-pong" between the two houses rumbles on.

MPs break for Easter next week, and the Bill now won't return to Parliament until April 15, increasingly putting pressure on the prime minister's goal to get flights off the ground by spring.

Leader of the Commons Penny Mordaunt said she blames Labour for the delay to the Bill - “I have no wish to blame their Lordships in the delay in this Bill, let me be very clear: I wish to blame Labour for this delay", she said.

Labour's Lucy Powell said "this is their timetable, their delay, no-one elses", insisting the legislation could've been put before MPs once more on Monday 25 March.

So why is the Rwanda plan taking so long, and when might flights actually take off?

What's been the progress of the Bill so far?

The government introduced the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill in December 2023, after the Rwanda policy was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court in November.

The Supreme Court said under the Rwanda plan asylum seekers would be at risk of being sent back to countries where they could face persecution.

The government came up with a two-pronged solution to the legal challenge, a new treaty with Rwanda and the "emergency" Rwanda Bill to declare Rwanda is a safe country.

The new Bill gives ministers the power to disregard sections of the Human Rights Act.

Some say the government can't call it "emergency" legislation anymore, because it's taken so long - Labour's Lucy Powell asked Leader of the House Penny Mordaunt on Wednesday "why if its such an emergency has she yet again delayed programming this legislation?".

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Former Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick quit over the new Bill because he wanted it to go further, while other MPs and Lords fear the Bill risks breaching international law.

The government won a crunch vote in the Commons over the Bill in January, despite threats MPs could rebel and block it.

The Bill then suffered a number of defeats as it moved to the the Lords.

Peers tabled ten changes, but they were all voted down in the Commons on Monday as MPs rejected all the amendments.

Returning once more to the Lords on Wednesday, the Bill suffered yet more defeats as peers voted through seven amendments, meaning it now returns again to the Commons.

What are the changes from the Lords?

The House of Lords can't block or vote down legislation, but it can encourage the government to think again, urging it to compromise where there is disagreement between the two chambers.

The amendments put forward by the Lords on Wednesday include a demand the Bill has "due regard" for domestic and international law, and to state that Rwanda is only safe for as long as the provisions of the UK’s treaty with that country are in place.

Other changes include making victims of modern slavery and human trafficking, and also those who worked with the UK government and armed forces, exempt from deportation.

In January the PM warned the Lords against frustrating “the will of the people” by hampering the passage of his Bill.

When could the Rwanda Bill become law?

The Bill returns to the Commons on April 15, and if the Lords make any further changes to the Bill after that date, more time has been set aside on April 17 for MPs to consider them.

Soon after this point it is expected to recieve royal assent and become law, but there's then the next hurdle of getting flights off the ground.

When could flights take off?

It's understood the Home Office will need six to ten weeks from the Bill becoming law to sort out logistics and legal details for flights to take off.

This means flights to Rwanda are likely to be delayed to June at the earliest.

On top of this, The Times reported on Monday that the Rwandan government has insisted on a staggered start to deportations, with a two month break after the first arrivals.

The newspaper also reported earlier this month that flights to Rwanda could be delayed because of events to commemorate the Rwandan genocide in the African country.

The prime minister reiterated this week that his goal is for flights to take off this spring - so when technically is spring?

There are two definitions according to the Met Office - "meteorological spring" which ends on May 31, and "astronomical spring" which ends on June 20.

Government Minister Andrea Leadsom told ITV News on Wednesday that "we will" see the first flight take off this spring.

What's held up the Rwanda plan for so long?

The Rwanda plan was first announced by then-prime minister Boris Johnson in April 2022.

In June 2022, the first flight to Rwanda was grounded minutes before take off after a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights.

In December 2022 the High Court ruled the government's Rwanda policy is lawful, but ordered the cases of the first eight deportees to be reconsidered.

In January 2023, Mr Sunak announced legislation to tackle the migrant crisis is one of five key priorities for his premiership.

In March 2023 a High Court judge ruled that asylum seekers facing removal to Rwanda can appeal against Home Office decisions over alleged errors in the consideration of whether relocation poses a risk to their human rights, dealing another blow to the plan.

In July 2023 the government was given the go-ahead to take the legal battle over its Rwanda deportation policy to the Supreme Court.

On November 15, 2023 the Supreme Court blocked the Rwanda policy by ruling it unlawful, prompting the government to introduce new legislation to get flights off the ground.

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