Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft has told MPs that he still does not know whether the government’s hugely controversial scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda for “processing” will provide value for money.
Rycroft said the success of the scheme and whether it is of financial benefit would be determined by "how many thousands of people" it deters from illegally crossing the Channel, but he admitted he could not find any evidence of a detterent effect so far.
The government has sent the Rwandan government an extra £20m for set up costs of the scheme – which aims to send some asylum seekers who enter the UK illegally on a one-way ticket to Rwanda – taking the total cost so far to £140m, Rycroft confirmed.
In April, when the scheme was announced, Rycroft requested a ministerial direction, saying the “migration and economic development partnership” did not have a strong financial evidence base.
Speaking at the Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Rycroft told MPs: “I keep that judgment under constant review as you would expect and the circumstances have not changed sufficiently for me to change my judgment from April, which was that we did not have evidence that it would be value for money. Which is not the same thing as saying it will not be value for money. It was just we were waiting to see what the evidence would be.
“It remains the case that it could be value for money and it could not be. I will repeat my commitment to this committee and the Public Accounts Committee to update you when the circumstances change to require me to change that assessment.”
The first plane scheduled to take asylum seekers to Rwanda was prevented from taking off by an eleventh-hour ruling by the European Court of Human Rights and no further attempts have been made yet, with the government embattled in litigation over the policy.
Asylum seekers, civil service union PCS, and charities Care4Calais and Detention Action brought a legal challenge against the policy, which is currently being heard by the High Court.
The case has seen the Home Office accused of attempting to send torture and trafficking victims and people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts to Rwanda.
The department said it would not relocate anyone if it is "unsafe or inappropriate for them", but its claim that Rwanda is "a fundamentally safe and secure country, with a track record of supporting asylum seekers" conflicts with analysis from the United Nations Refugee Agency.
On Wednesday, home secretary Suella Braverman told MPs: “We have confidence in the Rwanda scheme and if we are successful in litigation then we will be delivering the Rwanda scheme at pace.”
When requesting a ministerial direction back in April, Rycroft said he was “satisfied” it was “regular, proper and feasible” for the policy to proceed and added that learning from the Windrush scandal had been fed into developing the policy and the plans for its implementation.
But he said his central uncertainty about the programme was whether its aimed deterrent effect would deliver value for money.
More than 40,000 people have crossed the channel in small boats this year, the highest number since the government started collecting these figures in 2018. The figure includes record numbers in August – 8,631.
“The success of the scheme will not be measured in how many thousands relocate to Rwanda but more in how many thousands of people do not make the dangerous crossing of the Channel putting life at risk," Rycroft said.
"That is the key metric to determine on value for money whether this scheme is successful or not."
“And clearly the numbers have been going up,” committee chair Diana Johnson said in response.
While the scheme aims to deter people from illegally coming to the UK, Braverman struggled when asked to explain how people can come legally if they are not from specific countries where schemes are in place.
Braverman was asked by Conservative MP Tim Loughton to explain how a 16-year-old fleeing persecution in an African country, who already had a sibling legally living in Britain, could come to the country legally.
“We have an asylum system and people can put in applications for asylum,” she said.
Braverman said the UK had offered 390,000 places to people seeking safety from various countries around the world.
But Loughton said safe and legal routes were only available for children coming from certain countries, such as Ukraine, Afghanistan and Syria.
“If you are able to get to the UK, you are able to put in an application for asylum,” Braverman said.
Rycroft added that, "depending on which country you’re from", the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees may be able to help you to get leave to enter the UK in order to put in an asylum claim. But he admitted “there are countries where that would not be possible”.