Home secretary Priti Patel has insisted that the government’s controversial plans to send some asylum seekers arriving in the UK to Rwanda to start new lives will aid civil servants’ wellbeing and improve departmental finances.
Her claims come in a ministerial direction instructing Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft to proceed with the proposals after he raised concerns that the £120m “migration and economic development partnership” did not have a strong financial evidence base.
The deal seeks to ship asylum seekers who arrive in the UK by “dangerous or illegal routes” to the east African nation, where they will be offered the right to stay if their claim is successful. Under the pact, the UK’s legal obligation to transportees would end as soon as they arrive in Rwanda.
The Treasury’s Managing Public Money guidance requires departmental accounting officers – usually the perm sec – to seek a ministerial direction if they have issues with a policy’s regularity, propriety, value for money, or feasibility. The direction effectively records their concern and passes on responsibility to the relevant minister.
Rycroft’s request for a ministerial direction contained many supportive observations on the migration and economic development partnership. He 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 the perm sec said the central uncertainty surrounding the programme was whether its anticipated deterrent effect would deliver value for money.
In her response, Patel said the UK’s asylum system currently cost more than £1.5bn a year and the figure would rise without further action, as would deaths resulting from perilous people-smuggling operations and Channel crossings in unsuitable vessels.
She acknowledged an “absence of quantifiable and dynamic modelling” with the proposals, which she said was “inevitable when developing a response to global crises influenced by so many geopolitical factors such as climate change, war and conflict”.
But the home secretary said it would be “imprudent” to delay the delivery of a policy the government believed was the nation’s “best chance” at tackling the issue of illegal immigration.
Patel added: “Each day I am struck by the extremely challenging work we are asking Home Office officials and Border Force operational staff at all levels to undertake. It is with this in mind that I also believe there is an imperative to act now to mitigate the impact on staff wellbeing as well as departmental operational and financial pressures in the longer term.”
Rycroft’s letter said there were “potentially significant savings” to be realised through the deal with Rwanda, despite the policy’s “high cost”.
“Value for money of the policy is dependent on it being effective as a deterrent,” he said. “Evidence of a deterrent effect is highly uncertain and cannot be quantified with sufficient certainty to provide me with the necessary level of assurance over value for money.”
Rycroft said he did not believe that sufficient evidence could be obtained to demonstrate that the Rwanda policy would have a deterrent effect that was “significant enough to make the policy value for money”.
He added: “This does not mean that the [scheme] cannot have the appropriate deterrent effect; just that it there is not sufficient evidence for me to conclude that it will.”
At the weekend, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby called the scheme a “sub-contracting out” of the UK’s responsibility to those seeking refuge that was “the opposite of the nature of God”.