RAF ready to fly migrants crossing Channel in 'small boats' to Rwanda, signals Defence Secretary Grant Shapps

The RAF is ready if needed to fly asylum seekers and economic migrants who cross the Channel in “small boats” to Rwanda, Defence Secretary Grant Shapps signalled on Thursday.

The Cabinet minister suggested planes may be chartered for the controversial deportation flights, amid reports that many commercial airlines do not want to get involved.

But pressed repeatedly on whether the RAF may be ordered to carry out the flights, Mr Shapps told Sky News: “We will do whatever we need to do as a Government.”

His comments came after the Lords refused to bow to the Commons and allow the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill to clear Parliament, amid concerns over whether asylum seekers deported to Kigali will be safe or if they would risk being sent back to the country from where they had originally fled.

Peers dug in over their demand that Rwanda cannot be treated as a safe country until an independent monitoring body has verified that protections contained in a new treaty with Kigali are implemented.

In a further blow to the Government, peers again supported an exemption from removal for those who worked with the UK military or Government overseas, such as Afghan interpreters.

The showdown votes mean that the bill will now not pass until next week, when peers are expected to stop their defiance and allow the elected Chamber to get its way, even if they have such deep reservations about the legislation.

But the Government is reported to be struggling to find an airline or company to carry out the deportation flights.

Mr Shapps said flights might be chartered but also signalled that the RAF will be used if necessary.

He said: “It’s a whole Government effort, we will do whatever we need to do to make sure that the will of Parliament, which has been pretty clear as far as the elected Chamber has been concerned...we will do whatever we need to do to make sure that we can get these flights off, whether they are charter flights or any other type of flights.”

Pressed if the RAF will be used if necessary, he added: “As I say, we will do whatever we need to do as a Government.”

Asked this question again, he responded: “It’s pretty clear from my answer...we will do whatever we need to do.”

He sought to pin the blame for the parliamentary “ping pong” clash between the Commons and Lords on Labour, but the bill has also been opposed by Crossbenchers, some Tories, as well as the Liberal Democrats.

Mr Shapps added: “The plan is to ensure that we can quickly start to remove people.

“Unless we do, we will not break this chain of illegal criminal gangs people trafficking people across the Channel.”

He said he “hoped” the deportation flights will start this spring but the Government’s timetable appeared to be slipping.

The Bill and treaty with Rwanda are intended to prevent further legal challenges to the stalled asylum scheme after the Supreme Court ruled the plan was unlawful.

As well as compelling judges to regard the east African country as safe, it would give ministers the power to ignore emergency injunctions.

But in the Lords on Wednesday evening, Labour former defence secretary Lord Browne of Ladyton accused the Government of giving “worthless” assurances, such as for Afghans who worked for the British government.

He said: “Now is the time to give these people the sanctuary their bravery has earned.”

Urging peers to allow the legislation to proceed, Home Office minister Lord Sharpe of Epsom said: “We have debated the same issues for some time and it is of course right that the Bill is properly scrutinised. However, the time has come to get the Bill onto the statute books.”

After the two Government defeats, the draft law will now be sent back to the Commons, where MPs are set to consider the latest changes on Monday.

Mr Sunak has made “stopping the boats” a key pledge of his leadership, and sees the Rwanda scheme as a vital deterrent to Channel crossings.

The Prime Minister has previously said he hopes the flights can be begin before the end of spring.

Outside the chamber, Home Secretary James Cleverly sought to lay the blame for the latest Lords defeats at the door of the opposition.

He said: “It’s been another politically cynical effort by them, who have no alternative deterrent and no plan to tackle illegal migration, to frustrate the only solution on offer.”

But Labour’s shadow minister for immigration Stephen Kinnock branded the Rwanda plan “hare-brained”.

He said: “They can try to blame Labour, the Lords, or even the former military leaders who voted to amend the Government’s Bill this evening to prevent Afghan interpreters who helped our armed forces from being sent to Rwanda. But this is their mess, and they have no idea how to solve it.”