'Flights will go come what may': PM says first Rwanda flight to take off in 10-12 weeks

The PM announced the details of his key asylum scheme ahead of a crunch parliamentary vote, as Political Editor Robert Peston reports

Words by Elisa Menendez, Westminster Producer

Rishi Sunak has vowed the first one-way flight to Rwanda will set off in 10-12 weeks, warning: "Those flights will go come what may".

Speaking at a Downing Street press conference on Monday morning, the prime minister explained how he intends to get the first flights off the ground ahead of a crucial, final parliamentary showdown this evening.

“Enough is enough. No more prevarication, no more delay," the PM said.

"Parliament will sit there tonight and vote no matter how late it goes. No ifs, no buts. These flights are going to Rwanda.”

After weeks of political "ping pong" with the Bill being sent back and forth between the Commons and the Lords, MPs this evening voted to overturn two amendments to the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill that peers want implemented.

MPs voted 305 to 234, majority 71, to reject an amendment which proposed an exemption for agents, allies and employees of the UK overseas, such as Afghans who fought alongside the British armed forces, from being removed to Rwanda.

They also voted 306 to 229, majority 77, to reject the amendment aimed at ensuring Rwanda could not be treated as safe unless it was deemed so by an independent monitoring body.

The Bill has now been sent back to the House of Lords, where some peers may attempt to insist on their amendments again.

Both the House of Commons and Lords have been told to prepare to stay until the early hours of the morning to pass the Bill, which is a vital part of the PM's pledge to “stop the boats”.

With just 10 days left before the crucial May 2 local elections, the PM is hoping to finally get the Bill passed to reassure voters concerned about migration that his asylum scheme will work.

Mr Sunak earlier declined to give details on the number of people likely to be deported, but pledged people will be "physically removed" and there will be a “regular rhythm” of “multiple flights a month through the summer and beyond”.

He believes this would "build a sustainable deterrent".

Government ministers have repeatedly insisted in recent weeks that the first flight will take off in the spring but after the Lords voted against Bill last week, urging for the amendments to be made, Mr Sunak has missed his own deadline and been forced to push his plan back to summer.

Mr Sunak added that it was "one of the most complex operational endeavours the Home Office has ever carried out" but "we are ready".

“No foreign court will stop us from getting flights off," the PM insisted in a swipe at the numerous legal challenges the government has faced since then-prime minister Boris Johnson announced the Bill two years ago.

The government has also “put an airfield on standby” and “booked commercial charter planes” to put the plan into action as soon as the Bill passes, alongside a wave of other measures.

United Nations experts moved quickly on Monday to warn airlines and aviation authorities that if they help the UK Government in "unlawful removals" to Rwanda, they "could be complicit in violating" international human rights laws and court orders.

Reports have suggested the Home Office has struggled to find an airline to facilitate the flights, with Rwanda’s state-owned airline reportedly turning down a proposal because it didn’t want to be associated with the controversial scheme.

However, sources previously told ITV News’ Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana that AirTanker – which would call itself an aviation services provider – was considering whether to operate flights to Rwanda on behalf of the UK Government. AirTanker has not commented on the speculation.

'It's not 100% certain': Watch ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston's analysis of the PM's speech and the challenges that remain around the Rwanda Bill

The prime minister said there are around 500 "highly trained individuals ready to escort illegal migrants all the way to Rwanda, with 300 more trained in the coming weeks".

Mr Sunak told the press conference: “To detain people while we prepare to remove them, we’ve increased detention spaces to 2,200. To quickly process claims, we’ve got 200 trained, dedicated caseworkers ready and waiting.

“To deal with any legal cases quickly and decisively, the judiciary have made available 25 courtrooms and identified 150 judges who could provide over 5,000 sitting days.

“The Strasbourg court has amended their rule 39 procedures in line with the test set out in our Illegal Migration Act.

"And we’ve put beyond all doubt that ministers can disregard these injunctions with clear guidance that if they decide to do so, civil servants must deliver that instruction and most importantly, once the processing is complete, we will physically remove people."

What has been the reaction to the prime minister's speech?

Labour said the deportation flights are a "gimmick".

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said: “This is costing the taxpayer half-a-billion pounds for a scheme that will only cover 1% of asylum seekers.

“This is an extortionate scheme. They should be putting that money into boosting our border security instead. That is what Labour would do.”

She batted off Mr Sunak's claims that Labour is blocking the Bill and insisted he could've passed it through Parliament much sooner but he's "always looking for someone else to blame".

Freedom from Torture accused the government of “demonising and scapegoating” asylum seekers as it called for “compassionate” policies.

The Refugee Council disagreed with the prime minister's assertion that the plan will work as a deterrent and said it will "only compound the chaos within our asylum system, all at an exorbitant cost to taxpayers".

The United Nations (UN) issued a statement expressing "concern" about the role of airlines and aviation regulators in facilitating the UK Government's "unlawful removals" to Rwanda.

It stressed that removing asylum seekers to Rwanda or any other country "where they would be at risk of refoulement would violate the right to be free from torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment".

"Even if the UK-Rwanda agreement and the ‘Safety of Rwanda’ bill are approved, airlines and aviation regulators could be complicit in violating internationally protected human rights and court orders by facilitating removals to Rwanda," UN experts said.

“If airlines and aviation authorities give effect to State decisions that violate human rights, they must be held responsible for their conduct.

“As the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights underline, aviation regulators, international organisations and business actors are required to respect human rights."

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What has delayed the Bill and what will happen tonight?

Peers have repeatedly blocked the legislation with a series of amendments, stretching debate on the “emergency legislation” over more than four months and delaying flights deporting asylum seekers to the east African country.

The government has repeatedly blamed Labour peers for blocking the Bill but it is a number of cross-parliamentary peers that have concerns with it.

However, Downing Street is hostile to the idea of making concessions to secure the passage of the Bill, setting up a showdown with peers later on Monday.

The latest draft of the Bill is intended to overcome the objections of the Supreme Court by forcing judges to treat Rwanda as a safe country for asylum seekers and allowing ministers to ignore emergency injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights.

Last week saw peers amend the Bill yet again to include two changes: an exemption for Afghan nationals who assisted British troops, and a provision that would Rwanda could not be treated as a safe country unless it was deemed so by an independent monitoring body.

MPs are this evening voting to overturn those changes before sending the Bill back to the House of Lords, where some peers may attempt to insist on their amendments again.

If so, the Bill would return to the Commons late on Monday for a further vote and then return once again to the Lords in a process known as “ping pong” that could last well past the Commons’ usual 10pm finish.

If peers pass exactly the same amendment twice, however, the Commons faces the choice of either accepting the change or losing the Bill under a rarely-used process known as “double insistence”.

Crossbench peer and former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation Lord Anderson has raised this possibility and described the legislation as a “post-truth Bill” that asks Parliament to declare Rwanda is safe when, he argued, it is not.

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