Home Office under fire for lack of transparency on Rwanda plans

MPs have "little confidence" in department's ability to implement controversial asylum partnership "given its track record"
The Home Office's Marsham Street HQ Photo: Google Maps

By Jim Dunton

30 May 2024

Watchdog MPs have raised a list of concerns over the Home Office's handling of the government's controversial plans to send some categories of asylum seeker to Rwanda for processing and resettlement.

In a stinging final report of the 2019-24 parliament, the Public Accounts Committee berated the Home Office – and permanent secretary Sir Matthew Rycroft in particular – for failing to be transparent about key details of the programme.

MPs said that despite spending £240m on the "migration and economic development partnership" underpinning the Rwanda scheme since its launch in April 2002, the plan – which aims to deter cross-Channel migrants using small boats – had so far failed to compulsorily remove anyone to East Africa.

They said that the scheme had the potential to cost the UK government billions of pounds, but noted that Rycroft's accounting-officer assessment of the scheme has not altered since its launch. At the time, Rycroft sought a ministerial direction to proceed, cautioning that it was not possible to say whether it would deliver value for money.

The committee also noted that, two years down the line, the Home Office had "not yet worked out" how it will measure the success of any deterrent effect of the scheme, or what data will be required.

In their report yesterday, MPs said they "remain concerned over the feasibility of relocating large numbers of people, the Home Office’s understanding of the potential costs, and the value for money of the scheme".

"The Home Office has continually failed to be transparent with parliament about how many people will be relocated, and the potential costs of the programme," they said. "Despite the partnership being under development for more than two years, the accounting officer’s assessment of the scheme has not changed since April 2022."

There are currently more than 50,000 people who are deemed to be in the UK illegally, and whom the home secretary will have a duty to remove, the report said.

It said that despite "high-level proposals" on the scheme from prime minister Rishi Sunak, the Home Office was "unwilling" to say how many people it is planning to relocate to Rwanda and how it would do so.

"The Home Office asserts that it has robust operational plans, which are dependent on the flow of relocations," MPs said. "However, we are concerned by the Home Office’s inability to explain the practical details including, for example, where those people who may be subject to relocations currently are and the arrangements for escorting them to Rwanda."

They said the Home Office was also unable to "provide clarity" on escort or flight costs – and whether they are included in the department's current removals contract with outsourcer Mitie.

"We are left with little confidence in the Home Office’s ability to implement the Rwanda partnership, and its understanding of the costs, particularly given its track record in delivering other major programmes," MPs said.

The report added that PAC members were "disappointed" that Rycroft was not providing the necessary transparency to enable parliament to hold the Home Office to account on its asylum and immigration plans.

MPs said Rycroft's accounting officer assessment for the sovereign borders programme – covering the nation's new immigration regime – had been published nine months late, and 15 months after the programme had been approved. They added that the assessment did not cover the implementation of the Illegal Migration Act, which is an enabler for the Rwanda plans, despite the fact that it is a major change to asylum policy.

"The accounting officer asserts that it is up to ministers when to make these assessments public, but other departments have repeatedly shared assessments in a much more timely manner, without ministerial approval being a barrier," they said.

They added that Rycroft had also been "unwilling" to share details on negotiations with other nations over further potential third-country asylum processing partnerships.

Elsewhere, the report was scathing about "unacceptable and avoidable mistakes" made by the Home Office in setting up accommodation sites for asylum seekers at former military bases.

The department estimated it would cost £5m to get sites at RAF Wethersfield in Essex and RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire up and running, however costs spiralled to £49m and £27m respectively. Rycroft told a PAC evidence session last month that a "very significant" optimism bias was to blame for the massively underestimated cost.

PAC members said that the Home Office had "failed to maximise competition" in relation to the projects by simply amending current contracts or using framework arrangements. They added that Wethersfield and Scampton would also accommodate "significantly fewer" people than the Home Office originally expected.

A Home Office spokesperson challenged the suggestion the department lacked transparency in relation to the Rwanda programme.

"We have updated parliament on a number of occasions concerning costs relating to the migration and economic development partnership," they said. 

"We have followed standard processes regarding procurement, including of large sites, and as the permanent secretary has made clear, the department continues to evaluate and learn lessons from procurement exercises and our large sites programme."

The department said it would continue to report actual spend on the Rwanda programme in its annual report and accounts "in the usual way" and that it would not provide an "ongoing commentary" on operational activity.

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