Watchdog to probe Rwanda scheme costs – as legal bill tops £2m

Committee chairs slam "extreme lack of respect" from Home Office in handling of correspondence on costs
The Hope Hostel accommodation in Kigali, Rwanda where asylum seekers were due to be housed. Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

The National Audit Office will investigate the costs of the Rwanda scheme after the Home Office has repeatedly refused to share details with MPs – although the department has now acknowledged spending more than £2m defending against legal challenges so far.

The watchdog will produce a factual report next year setting out the money spent to date on the Rwanda programme and the Home Office’s estimate of costs when the scheme is operational, the Home Affairs Committee and the Public Accounts Committee said yesterday.

The announcement comes after repeated demands for information from both committees. 

In a letter yesterday, Home Office permanent secretary Sir Matthew Rycroft said the legal bill for the “migration and economic development partnership” with Rwanda had reached £2,137,045 as of 30 November.

The letter came just days after another in which he said the department would not be sharing the costs of the scheme with the committee.

In a joint statement, committee chairs Dame Diana Johnson and Dame Meg Hillier said: “Both of our committees have long called on the Home Office for greater transparency around the Rwanda asylum plan. It is essential that parliament is in full possession of the facts around a scheme of such high public interest.

“As the government has thus far been unwilling or unable to provide these facts, we are grateful to the National Audit Office for its forthcoming work to keep the taxpayer informed on the plan’s costs, both to date and when the scheme becomes operational."

‘Transparency must be balanced against public interests’

At an evidence hearing on 29 November, Rycroft said ministers had decided to use its annual accounts to reveal payments made to the Rwandan government under the immigration scheme.

Reiterating this point in a follow-up letter on 7 December, Rycroft said: “I fully recognise the public interest in transparency and accountability of public authorities for expenditure and the broad public interest in furthering public understanding of the issues with which public authorities deal.

“However, this must also be balanced against public interests which work the other way. For example, you will recognise the importance of respecting commercial confidence and the maintenance of confidence between international partners."

The letter came two months after Rycroft told the committee that then-home secretary Suella Braverman had decided it would not be “appropriate” for the committee to see documents related to the partnership – even in confidence.

“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 at the time.

In an irate reply to Rycroft’s latest letter, Hillier and Johnson said the MPs had been “surprised and disappointed” to find that the Home Office had made the correspondence public just half an hour after sending it on the evening of 7 December.

“Not only did you give us no notice that such an important letter, containing some of the answers to the information we had requested, was coming, but you published the letter before our committees had time to consider it,” she said.

“This shows an extreme lack of respect for our committees. Moreover, the information provided does not answer our questions in full.”

The two committee chairs asked Rycroft to provide quarterly updates on the scheme given its high profile and the major legislation surrounding it.

“As accounting officer you are responsible for managing public money under Treasury guidelines. As such you have specific duties to parliament relating to the propriety of public spending and a key element of propriety is meeting parliamentary expectations, especially transparency. This scheme was delivered only after you requested a ministerial direction on 13 April 2022,” they said.

“In light of the concerns around value for money that led you to issue that direction we would have expected more transparency than you have chosen to provide.”

As well as informing Rycroft that the NAO would produce its report, Hillier and Johnson asked Rycroft to appear at a hearing on 11 December, ahead of a key vote on the Rwanda bill the following day.

“We expect full and frank answers on this matter at the public hearing. Parliament needs full information ahead of a vote on such a significant issue and we look forward to you providing that on Monday,” they wrote.

However, the hearing did not go ahead. On 12 December,  MPs voted by 313 to 269 to back the legislation in principle.

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