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PM faces fresh pressure as £290 million cost of grounded Rwanda scheme emerges

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a press conference in the Downing Street Briefing Room (PA)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a press conference in the Downing Street Briefing Room (PA)

Rishi Sunak is facing fresh pressure over his beleaguered Rwanda policy after it emerged the cost of the scheme has already reached £240 million, despite it never being used.

The Government spent a further £100 million in the 2023-24 financial year while flights remained grounded amid a series of legal setbacks, on top of the £140 million previously paid out.

According to a letter from the Home Office to committee chairs, ministers expect a further £50 million cost in the coming year, which would bring the total to £290 million.

It comes just hours after a defiant Mr Sunak vowed to “finish the job” of reviving his plan to deport some asylum seekers to Kigali despite opposition from hardline Tories and the prospect of a bitter parliamentary battle.

Rishi Sunak press conference
Home Secretary James Cleverly (James Manning/PA)

In a letter published on Thursday to Dame Diana Johnson, chairwoman of the Home Affairs Committee, and Dame Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee, Home Office official Matthew Rycroft wrote: “Ministers have agreed that I can disclose now the payments so far in the 2023-24 financial year. There has been one payment of £100 million, paid in April this year as part of the Economic Transformation and Integration Fund mentioned above.

“The UK Government has not paid any more to the Government of Rwanda thus far. This was entirely separate to the Treaty – The Government of Rwanda did not ask for any payment in order for a Treaty to be signed, nor was any offered.”

Labour branded the revelation “incredible”, with shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper saying: “How many more blank cheques will Rishi Sunak write before the Tories come clean about this scheme being a total farce?

“Britain simply can’t afford more of this costly chaos from the Conservatives.”

The Prime Minister, whose immigration minister Robert Jenrick quit rather than backing a plan which he believed was destined for failure, earlier insisted his new law would end the “merry-go-round of legal challenges”.

The Government hopes to rush emergency legislation through Parliament for MPs and peers to declare that Rwanda is a safe destination for asylum seekers.

In the Commons, Tory hardliners may seek to beef up the Bill by calling for it to effectively override international law – something which Mr Jenrick and former home secretary Suella Braverman have argued for.

MPs will get their first chance to debate and vote on the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill on Tuesday.

Mr Sunak dismissed suggestions he will make it a confidence vote – meaning that MPs would have the whip withdrawn if they defied him.

Under the Government’s plan, first unveiled in April 2022, people who arrive in the UK by irregular means, such as on small boats, could be sent on a one-way trip to Rwanda, where the Kigali government would decide on their refugee status.

The Bill, initially unveiled in draft form on Wednesday, seeks to compel judges to treat Rwanda as a safe country after the Supreme Court ruled the scheme was unlawful over risks to refugees.

The legislation gives ministers the powers to disregard sections of the Human Rights Act, but does not go as far as allowing them to dismiss the European Convention on Human Rights.

It is not just the Tory right that Mr Sunak has to worry about, with MPs in the moderate One Nation wing of the party “very nervous” about the implications of the legislation, a source told the PA news agency.

The grouping has been discussing concerns including that courts cannot override the declaration of the Bill that Rwanda is a safe country and is yet to come to a conclusion after hearing the preliminary findings of former solicitor general Lord Edward Garnier.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a press conference in the Downing Street Briefing Room
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak held a Downing Street press conference to defend his plan (James Manning/PA)

A separate panel of legal experts drawing up an opinion that will be influential on the party’s right are also expected to return a verdict before the vote.

European Research Group chairman Mark Francois said: “We all agree with the Prime Minister that we need to stop the boats, but the legislation to do this must be assuredly fit for purpose.”

The legislation is likely to run into difficulties when it makes it to the Lords, where the Government has frequently struggled to get Bills through unscathed.

Robert Jenrick
Robert Jenrick resigned as immigration minister over the plan (Victoria Jones/PA)

The Prime Minister called a press conference on Thursday to speak directly to the nation as he sought to restore his authority in his own party following the resignation of Mr Jenrick and the sacking of Mrs Braverman.

He said the Bill “blocks every single reason that has ever been used” to prevent flights to Rwanda.

Meanwhile, Conservative Party chairman Richard Holden echoed the PM’s calls for unity, telling journalists at a press gallery lunch in Parliament that another leadership contest would be “insanity”.

“The only way to victory is if we get out there and fight for it, fight for people’s votes and show them we’re on their side. I think if we’re introspective – we all know that divided parties don’t win elections,” he said.