Home Office civil servants' opinion of Rwanda policy 'irrelevant', Rycroft says

Perm sec acknowledges "grey area" if staff think a policy is illegal, but said this was not the case for the Rwanda partnership
Matthew Rycroft speaking to the Home Affairs Committee this week

The objections of civil servants to the Home Office’s policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda are “totally irrelevant”, the department’s permanent secretary has said.

The Rwanda policy has come under fire from critics, unions and some civil servants alike since being announced in April. Last month, the PCS union urged staff to boycott the policy – which it is challenging through a judicial review – while an anonymous group of officials know as “Our Home Office” has spoken out against the policy and is running a social media campaign in support of refugees.

But Matthew Ryroft told MPs this week that even if “100%” of the Home Office’s nearly 40,000 staff “could not themselves have wanted to come up with that sort of policy”, it would be immaterial.

“It’s irrelevant what any civil servant thinks about a policy if the government of the day has determined that policy, if it’s got the relevant approvals – for instance, from parliament, as the Nationality and Borders Act has – it’s totally irrelevant what any of the 38,000 think,” he said.

Rycroft’s latest comments come after it was reported that he had told staff who were concerned that the policy is racist and illegal to “get on with it".

Speaking to the Home Affairs Committee this week, he said: “The role of civil servants is maximum challenge of a policy before ministers decide it, in order to stress test it and make sure it’s really robust. And then maximum support and implementation for that policy after ministers have decided it, provided it’s legal.

“Once ministers have decided what the policy should be, as long as it’s legal, it’s then the job of civil servants to implement it. That goes to the heart of being a civil servant, and if people are not comfortable with that, either they can move away from that bit of the department that’s responsible for that, or they can move from one department to another department or – if they really feel they must – then they can leave the civil service,” he said.

He added: “If there are policies that people themselves think and believe are illegal, then that’s a grey area. But my accounting officer judgement was that did not apply to the Rwanda partnership – and of course there will be a judicial review on that.”

'Too early to say' if policy is working

While Rycroft did not raise legal objections to the Rwanda policy, he did question whether the £120m “economic partnership” would deliver value for money.

Asked if he had changed his view since requesting a ministerial direction for it to go ahead, he said he had not updated his assessment but was “keeping that under review”.

“This is about prevention. So the policy will be a success if there are fewer crossings than there would have been,” he said, adding that it is “too early to tell” if this is the case.

Rycroft said he would update his assessment “either when there is any significant change to the evidence on value for money or regularly every few months”.

He said officials would be tracking “a number of measures” to determine whether the policy is operating effectively and delivering value for money – including the number of Channel crossings people make to reach the UK, compared to the Home Office’s projections. However, he said the department must also take into account any other factors influencing the number of crossings.

He acknowledged MPs’ assertion that the number of Channel crossings has risen since the Rwanda policy was announced.

“It is not currently rising as much as our projection for this year; it is too early to tell whether that is due to the announcement of the Rwanda policy or other factors including the weather, and that is why we will keep this under constant review. But it'd be premature to reach a definitive judgement,” he added.

He later added that the figures indicated “there is already possibly the beginnings of some deterrent effect” arising from the policy.

He noted that the Home Office has yet to actually send any asylum seekers to the African country, and that "if there were to be a deterrent effect one would expect it to increase as the policy got underway through its operationalisation”.

An eleventh-hour ruling by the European Court of Human Rights prevented the first plane scheduled to take asylum seekers to Rwanda from taking off last week.

Asked if the Home Office had put a number on how many people it would have to send to Rwanda to judge the initiative a success, Rycroft said: “The one thing I would say is I don’t think the success of this scheme should be measured by the number of people being relocated to Rwanda. The success of the scheme should be measured by the number of journeys deterred.”

He said it would be “impossible” to say how many people would need to be deported to deter people from crossing the Channel, adding: “I don’t think at this stage it would be right to speculate about those sorts of numbers.”

While the number of Channel crossings will be one of the measures used to evaluate the scheme’s success, Rycroft stressed the importance of monitoring any collateral effects of the policy.

“It will be a Pyrrhic victory if this set of policies were successful in closing down the small-boats route but created something even more dangerous, and that would not be a victory at all. So we need to make sure that we think about this in the round,” he said.

Rycroft confirmed that a monitoring committee for the policy has been set up in the Home Office, and promised to write to the committee to confirm its terms of reference and budget.

Asked whether the government has any plans for a similar partnership with any other countries, Rycroft said this has not been ruled out but said such a deal is “not a live issue and not high on anyone's priorities”.

“There's certainly no funding for it at the moment,” he said, adding: “I absolutely couldn't rule out that someone, somewhere in the system, might have a conversation with someone in another country about a future possible negotiation.... But of course, it wouldn't make sense, I don't think, to embark on another really significant initiative such as this until we knew much more than we currently know about the success or otherwise of the Rwanda flight,” he said.

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