Priti Patel has been accused by Labour of participating in a “government by gimmick” in the aftermath of the 11th-hour cancellation on Tuesday of the inaugural flight taking asylum seekers to Rwanda.
As the home secretary entertained demands from Conservative backbenchers to pull out of Europe’s human rights framework after the policy was scuppered by a court ruling, Labour said the plan to transport refugees 4,000 miles away was never a “serious policy”.
The criticism came as the Guardian learned that Patel was seeking to curb the number of modern slavery claims from refugees hoping to stay in the UK. Government sources said a slew of “spurious” claims was partly responsible for migrants being removed from deportation flights.
On Tuesday up to seven people who went to the UK seeking refuge had been expected to be shortly removed to Rwanda. But a ruling granting a temporary injunction by the European court of human rights (ECHR) on one of the seven cases allowed lawyers for the other six to make successful last-minute applications.
Appearing in the Commons, Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said the “waste of public money” on the failed policy was “a shambles and shameful”.
“This is not and never has been a serious policy and [Patel] knew that when she chartered the plane,” Cooper said.
The ruling by the Strasbourg court was greeted with fury by Tory MPs, with fresh demands for the UK to pull out of the European convention on human rights. The ECHR rules on issues relating to the convention and is not an EU institution, so its influence has not been affected by Brexit.
Greg Smith, the Conservative MP for Buckingham, called on the government to bring forward its promised UK Bill of Rights and “remove all power of the European court of human rights over our sovereign decisions”.
Jonathan Gullis, a ministerial aide to the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, said “the ECHR’s role in UK law needs looking at urgently” – but reportedly deleted an initial social media post suggesting the court’s role should be removed entirely.
Patel told MPs that three of the asylum seekers who were to be on the first flight to Rwanda on Tuesday night had had their removal blocked by the Strasbourg-based court.
Asked if the government could withdraw from the convention, the prime minister’s official spokesperson said: “We are keeping all options on the table, including any further legal reforms that may be necessary. We will look at all of the legislation and processes in this round.”
Patel is considering tightening up the criteria for people to be classed as victims of modern slavery, a category that prevents their immediate removal from the UK.
Those people who are referred to the scheme via the national referral mechanism (NRM) can access government support, including legal advice and accommodation, while their case is considered, for at least 45 days. The NRM, overseen by the Home Office, asks organisations such as councils, police and some third-sector organisations to identify victims.
Jacqueline McKenzie, a lawyer for one of the asylum seekers who was due to be on the flight, said: “It is shocking if they wish to make it even harder to qualify as a modern slavery victim. Some real victims are going to get caught up in this and will not be able to seek protection.”
In a further development, the British Medical Association, two royal colleges and other health professionals said they were “horrified” by the government’s Rwanda plans and were warning that the new policy would cause “catastrophic and irreversible harm”.
In a joint letter to Patel, the Royal College of Midwives, Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, BMA, Faculty of Public Health, Helen Bamber Foundation, MSF UK, Doctors of the World UK, Medical Justice and Freedom from Torture said that the plans would have a severe and irreparable impact on people’s health, wellbeing and dignity.
“We oppose this policy on medical, ethical and humanitarian grounds,” they wrote. “We have severe concerns that those forcibly deported to Rwanda will struggle to access appropriate and timely healthcare.”
Meanwhile, a response to a freedom of information request, obtained by the Guardian, said officials did not know how much the new policy was costing them.
The FoI response stated: “We have carried out a thorough search and we have established that the Home Office does not hold the information you have requested on total government plans and preparations for our partnership with Rwanda. It is not possible to give a specific financial figure in this regard.”
The FoI added that UK officials had made six visits to Rwanda before the Migration and Economic Development Partnership Deal was signed, and that Rwandan government officials visited the UK once.