Jeremy Hunt has said there is “no guarantee” deportation flights to Rwanda will take off next year – in an apparent climbdown on the government’s position.
On Wednesday Rishi Sunak said three times the flights would take off by spring, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling that the asylum scheme is unlawful.
However, the chancellor declined to repeat this assurance when repeatedly pressed for a date.
Mr Hunt said: “We are hopeful that because of the solutions that the prime minister announced yesterday we will be able to get flights off to Rwanda next year.
“We can’t guarantee that, we have to pass legislation in the House of Commons and sign a new international treaty with Rwanda.”
Under the current plan, asylum seekers could be sent from Rwanda back to places where they might not be safe.
He said he would be taking the “extraordinary step of introducing emergency legislation”, which will “enable parliament to confirm that with our new treaty, Rwanda is safe”.
“We will clear the remaining barriers and flights will be heading off in the spring as planned,” he later told journalists during a Q&A.
Immigration minister Robert Jenrick was also unequivocal that flights would take off next year.
Asked on the Politics Hub with Sophy Ridge on Sky News whether flights with asylum seekers are going to take off to Rwanda before the next general election, expected in the spring or autumn of 2024, he said: “Yes. We must do.”
But Mr Hunt was unable to say when the emergency legislation would be passed, let alone the flights.
Pressed whether next year means in time for a general election, he said we “can’t give a precise date as to when those flights will happen”.
Asked how soon the promised emergency legislation could be laid before parliament for those flights to go ahead, he only said “very soon”.
When pushed if that meant before Christmas or early in the new year, he said: “We want to solve this as soon as possible.”
Mr Sunak and many of his Conservative MPs are concerned a failure to “stop the boats” will hit them badly at the next general election – given it is a pledge the prime minister has staked his premiership on.
The ruling at the Supreme Court yesterday was the latest setback in the delayed scheme, which has already cost £140 million despite no flights taking off since the policy was announced last April due to a series of legal challenges.
The plan would see anyone who arrives in the UK by unauthorised means deported to Rwanda to claim asylum there – not the UK.
The government is working to broker a new legally binding treaty on top of the multi-million pound deal already struck with Kigali after the ruling from the UK’s highest court on Wednesday.
Members of the House of Lords have warned the bill is likely to face opposition and could very well be blocked by the upper chamber.
Former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption told the BBC the “profoundly discreditable” plan to use a law to declare Rwanda as safe is “constitutionally really quite extraordinary”.
He argued it will “effectively overrule a decision on the facts, on the evidence, by the highest court in the land”.