Theresa May has criticised plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda on the grounds of “legality, practicality and efficacy”, telling MPs she fears the proposals could split up families and increase the trafficking of women and children.
The former Conservative prime minister raised questions about the new asylum policy – that will see refugees who reach the UK through illegal routes deported to Rwanda – as Home Secretary Priti Patel defended the plans.
“Can I say with respect to my right honourable friend that from what I have heard and seen so far of this policy, I do not support the removal to Rwanda policy on the grounds of legality, practicality and efficacy,” Mrs May told the Commons.
“But I want to ask her about one very specific issue. I understand that those who will be removed will only be young men, that families will not be… well, the home secretary is shaking her head so I’ve obviously misunderstood the policy in that sense.
“But if it is the case that families will not be broken up, and the home secretary is nodding, does she not believe and where is her evidence that this will not simply lead to an increase in the trafficking of women and children?”
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Ms Patel said a memorandum of understanding has been published “which spells out in full detail the legalities but also the nature of the agreement”.
It comes after the Archbishop of Canterbury used his Easter Sunday sermon to criticise the government scheme, calling the policy un-Christian and saying it raises “serious ethical questions”.
Conservative MP and former Cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom criticised the Most Reverend Justin Welby’s intervention, saying the leaders of the Church of England have “completely forgotten images of children lying drowned on our beaches”.
Making a statement on the proposals in the Commons, Ms Patel said “access to the UK’s asylum system should be based on need, not the ability to pay people smugglers” and reiterated that the plans are consistent with the UK’s international and legal obligations.
“This agreement deals a major blow to the people smugglers and the evil trade in human cargo,” she told MPs.
“Everyone who is considered for relocation will be screened and interviewed including an age assessment and have access to legal services.”
The home secretary added that reports that the Home Office Permanent Secretary Matthew Rycroft opposed the plans are untrue.
“Contrary to reports in the newspapers, the permanent secretary did not oppose this agreement nor assert that it is poor value for money,” she told MPs.
“Rather, he stated his role as accounting officer that the policy is regular, proper and feasible. But there is not currently sufficient evidence to demonstrate value for money. It is the job of ministers to take decisions.”
The home secretary continued: “This will help break the people smugglers business model and prevent the loss of life while ensuring protection for those who are generally genuinely vulnerable.
“At the heart of this approach is fairness.”
But shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper called the policy “shameful”, adding: “She is making it easier for the criminal gangs and harder for those who need support.”
Ms Cooper said Ms Patel’s refugee plans amount to asking Rwanda to do the job of which she is “incapable”.
“Will she admit the £120 million she’s announced doesn’t pay for a single person to be transferred?” she added.
Ms Patel replied: “You cannot put a price on saving human lives.”
She later refused to say whether there will be a cap on costs per asylum seeker removed to Rwanda.
SNP home affairs spokesman Stuart McDonald said: “This is a cruel and a catastrophic policy. It will not hurt smugglers but will further seriously harm people who have fled persecution.”
More than 4,600 people have arrived in the UK on small boats this year, according to data compiled by the PA news agency.