The Home Office's top civil servant has said he is still unsure whether the stalled Rwanda asylum policy is value for money, although Britain has already paid £140 million ($169 million) to the East African nation.
It remains the case that the plan to send migrants to Rwanda “could be value for money and it could not be”, the government department’s permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft told MPs.
Former home secretary Priti Patel announced the deal more than seven months ago in a bid to curb Channel crossings but the plan has been hampered by legal challenges.
Asked whether he thought the policy was value for money, Mr Rycroft told the Commons Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday: “I keep that judgment under constant review, as you would expect, and the circumstances have not changed sufficiently for me to change my judgment which, from April, was that we did not have evidence it would be value for money.
“The UK has paid £120 million plus an additional £20 million for set-up costs to the government of Rwanda and it remains the case it could be value for money and it could not be.
“I think it is worth underlining the purpose of the scheme is deterrence, is prevention. The success of the scheme will not be measured in how many thousands of people will be relocated to Rwanda but more by how many people do not make the dangerous crossing of the Channel.”
Migrants at immigration processing centre in Manston — in pictures
On April 14, Ms Patel signed what she described as a “world-first” agreement with Rwanda for it to receive migrants deemed by the UK to have arrived “illegally”, and therefore inadmissible under new immigration rules.
The legality of the policy has been contested in the courts, with ministers and campaigners awaiting a ruling from High Court judges on the case.
Since the deal was announced, 36,858 people have arrived in the UK after crossing the Channel, provisional Ministry of Defence figures show.
“We have been very clear that we are confident about the terms of our agreement with Rwanda and I’m very confident about the effect that it will have,” Home Secretary Suella Braverman told MPs.
When asked if she was confident that it was safe to send people to Rwanda, she replied: “Well, I have actually visited Rwanda twice, quite a while ago, around 2010, 2009. And I’ve always found Rwanda to be a very inspiring country, actually.
“We would only ever work with countries that we assess to be safe and that we assess will treat asylum seekers in accordance with relevant human rights law, and our own safety assessment of Rwanda and their asylum process has found that it is fundamentally a safe and secure country with a track record of supporting asylum seekers.”
Migrant crossings on the English Channel surge amid heatwave — in pictures
Also on Wednesday, Ms Braverman admitted the government has failed to control the UK’s borders, as she blamed migrants crossing the Channel for overcrowding at the Manston processing centre.
The home secretary also struggled to explain the legal routes which asylum seekers fleeing war and persecution could use to come to the UK, prompting criticism that she was “out of her depth” and did not understand her own policies.
She was repeatedly questioned over where the fault lies for the problems at the Kent migrant holding facility when she faced the Commons Home Affairs Committee for the first time since her appointment.
The former military airfield near Ramsgate stood empty on Tuesday after everyone held there was moved into hotels but it has been dogged by controversy over the past few weeks, with ministers coming under fire over conditions.
Does the UK have a migrant crisis? — video
At its peak earlier this month, 4,000 migrants were being held there — more than double its 1,600-person capacity — a move branded a “breach of humane conditions”.
The Home Office has now been threatened with five legal actions over the site.
Speaking to MPs on Wednesday, Ms Braverman said: “I’m not going to point the finger of blame at any one person. It’s not as simple as that.”
Asked again, she said: “Listen, I don’t think it’s helpful to point the finger of fault at anyone.”
Pressed further, she countered: “I tell you who’s at fault. It’s very clear who’s at fault. It’s the people who are breaking our rules, coming here illegally, exploiting vulnerable people and trying to reduce the generosity of the British people. That’s who’s at fault.”
Ms Braverman added “people smugglers” and “people who are choosing to take an illegal and dangerous journey to come here for economic reasons” are to blame.
More than 200 migrants cross English Channel after pause in journeys — video
Tory MP Lee Anderson told Ms Braverman more asylum seekers are being housed in hotels because “the Home Office has failed to control our borders and it’s not fit for purpose at the moment”.
She replied: “We have failed to control our borders, yes. That’s why the Prime Minister and myself are absolutely determined to fix this problem.”
Also in the wide-ranging session:
— MPs said there is a “shortage of safe and legal routes” to claim asylum in the UK after Ms Braverman struggled to explain how a 16-year-old orphan escaping an African war zone and religious persecution to join their sibling in the UK would do so without being deemed to have arrived in the country “illegally”.
— Channel Threat Commander Dan O’Mahoney could not say how many Albanian police officers have been posted to the UK to tackle the rising numbers of people from the Balkan state crossing the Channel, apart from one who has been stationed in Manston, since a deal was struck with Tirana in August.
— The Home Office is paying staff bonuses as part of efforts to cut the backlog of asylum cases and targets have been set to speed up decision making on claims.
Afghan migrant documents dangerous journey across Channel — video
— The department considered housing asylum seekers in a derelict building which had not been used as a hotel for over 17 years, an MP claimed.
Ms Braverman was given legal advice over a potential legal breach by holding people at Manston when she was first appointed home secretary, MPs were told.
During a testy exchange, she declined to directly say when she received the advice but said she arrived in the department in September “in full awareness” of the crisis.
She added she “was aware from the beginning of my tenure there was a problem in Manston” but cited a “government convention” on not discussing legal advice.
“Home Office officials made the home secretary aware of the legal position as well as policy options from the beginning of her tenure,” said Mr Rycroft.
The Home Office has received five pre-action legal letters about Manston but no judicial review claims have been issued as yet, Ms Braverman said.
MPs also heard that the death of a migrant who had been held there was not suspicious and he had received a “significant level of medical support” after he arrived in the UK on November 12. But officials have yet to track down his next of kin.