Suella Braverman has refused to allow MPs to be briefed in confidence on the costs of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda for asylum claim processing and resettlement.
Members of the Public Accounts Committee found their efforts to understand the costs underpinning the UK’s agreement with the Rwandan government frustrated this summer, when they were told some “commercially sensitive” figures could not be revealed publicly.
Home Office permanent secretary Sir Matthew Rycroft has now confirmed the home secretary has decided it would not be "appropriate" for the committee to see financial details of the agreement, which she has decided "should remain confidential".
Appearing before PAC in July, Rycroft was asked about media reports that said deporting an asylum seeker would cost just under £170,000 under the UK-Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership, while it costs £106,000 to process an asylum application domestically.
Rycroft said the figures were “proxy numbers” based on the cost of processing claims in the UK.
But pressed further, the perm sec was unable to give further financial details of the agreement.
Committee member Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown asked: “You know the actual costs, but you are not disclosing them. Is that correct?”
“No, it is not,” Rycroft replied.
“There is a bit that we are not disclosing, which is commercially sensitive between the UK government and the government of Rwanda."
He added that the government’s annual spending through the agreement will be disclosed in the Home Office’s annual report – which, published earlier this month, showed it had paid £140m to the Rwandan government last year all told.
The costs include the initial £120m outlay published at the time then-home secretary Priti Patel signed the deal last year, paid into a Rwandan economic development fund. A further “advance payment” of £20m towards set-up costs for asylum processing will act as “a credit to pay for the anticipated future asylum and operational costs”, according to the report.
However, the report includes no further information on the cost breakdown of the scheme.
Dame Diana Johnson – who chairs the Home Affairs Select Committee and attended PAC’s July evidence session – quizzed Rycroft on why he was unable to share more, given that the partnership is a memorandum of understanding between two governments.
“As I understand it, that is not a commercial contract; it is an arrangement between two governments. I do not quite get… why you cannot give us figures and details,” she said.
Rycroft replied that “despite the public nature of the agreement between the two governments, it is underpinned by some commercially sensitive information, including the cost”.
Unsatisfied with Rycroft’s answers, PAC chair Meg Hillier asked if the committee could view the relevant information in confidence – a suggestion Rycroft said he would put to ministers.
Hillier added: “We have looked at previous Home Office matters. We are a responsible committee, not a reckless one. We have never yet leaked anything; we would not start all of a sudden. It would be helpful to look at the numbers underpinning this, if we could do that.”
When Rycroft said he would put the request to ministers, Hillier noted that “other permanent secretaries have acceded to that request, including in the Home Office, without noticeably going to ministers”.
“There has certainly been no pushback,” she said.
But in a letter to the committee following up on the session, Rycroft said the committee would not be given access to the information it had asked for.
“While I appreciate that the committee may have viewed sensitive documents in the past, I do not believe that it would be appropriate in this instance,” read the letter, which was dated 18 August but published last week.
“As I’m sure you can understand, this partnership between the UK and Rwanda is a topic of significant interest not only within the UK, but also to states considering a similar arrangement, and the home secretary has decided that this information should remain confidential,” he said.
The MPs referenced media reports in June that said deporting each asylum seeker will cost just under £170,000, while it costs £106,000 to process their asylum applications in the UK. Given that the stated aim of the scheme is to deter small-boat Channel crossings to the UK, the paper calculated that at least 37% of small boat arrivals would have to be deterred for there to be no additional cost to the taxpayer.
The numbers quoted were from the Home Office’s economic impact assessment on the illegal migration bill – now the Illegal Migration Act – which was progressing through parliament at the time.
At the July PAC hearing, Clifton Brown asked Rycroft if he could explain the cost of the scheme "against the potential level of deterrence and how this is all going to work".
“We recognise the numbers, but they are proxy numbers. They were estimates based on how much it had cost in the past to process someone’s claim in the UK, which was then applied to Rwanda,” Rycroft said.
He then referred to his own request for a ministerial direction last April – in which he had said the scheme could not go ahead without Braverman’s say-so, since there was no evidence that it would achieve value for money.
He told the committee: “In the future, when we look back on this time, we will be able to judge whether there has been a reduction as a result of the preventive effect of that policy."
But pressed by Clifton-Brown on if it would be possible to judge whether any such reduction will have been a “direct effect of the policy”, Rycroft acknowledged there would be “multiple factors at play”.
“It will be difficult to factor out the bit of the deterrent that came from that as opposed to some of the other things the government are doing, but we will make our best estimate of that,” he said.
The Home Office is in the process of appealing a Court of Appeal judgment that found the department had broken the law by claiming Rwanda is safe. The appeal will be heard by five Supreme Court judges next month, along with cross-appeals claiming asylum seekers sent to the East African nation could face torture; and that the home secretary has failed to comply with her duty of thorough investigation and examination of the adequacy of the Rwandan system for determining refugee status.