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Home Office ‘loses’ 17,000 people whose asylum claims were withdrawn

Rishi Sunak has been accused of losing control of the UK’s borders after the Home Office admitted that it does not know the whereabouts of 17,000 people whose asylum claims have been withdrawn.

Amid a stalled Rwanda deportation scheme and rising costs for housing people seeking refuge in hotels, senior civil servants in the department were told by the Conservative MP and deputy party chair Lee Anderson they “hadn’t got a clue” after failing to provide answers on people seeking refuge in the UK or foreign offender removals.

His comments emerged an hour before the prime minister was accused by the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, of facing an “open revolt” from the Tories after “losing control of the borders”.

At a meeting of the home affairs select committee, the Conservative MP Tim Loughton questioned why 17,316 asylum claims had been withdrawn in the year to September 2023 and whether the Home Office knew where the former claimants were.

Simon Ridley, the interim second permanent secretary at the Home Office, replied it was not fortuitous. “In dealing with a lot of older cases there have been some of those people who have absconded at that point,” he said.

Asked by Loughton if he had any idea where those 17,316 people were, Ridley said: “I don’t think we know where those people are, no.”

The permanent secretary at the Home Office, Sir Matthew Rycroft, told MPs that officials were currently in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, as they put the “finishing touches” to a new immigration deal, after the supreme court ruled against the government’s first agreement.

Committee members asked how much more UK taxpayers should expect to pay for the scheme after handing over £140m to the Rwandan regime since April 2022.

Rycroft said more cash could be paid but would not say if any additional payments had since been made, instead saying ministers had decided they would not reveal that information until the department’s annual report in the summer.

When it was put to him that the Home Office itself published an impact assessment putting the cost for each per deported person at £169,000, Rycroft accepted that that was the figure in the document, but he said the Home Office did not accept it as accurate because it was based on estimates.

He also claimed that he did not have a figure for the number of Rwandan people the government might have to accept under a clause in the deal, and could not give any details about alternative plans to the Rwandan deal if it could not be implemented.

Following exchanges with the committee on Channel crossings and removing refused asylum seekers from the UK, where Rycroft and Ridley were unable to answer detailed questions, the committee chair, Dame Diana Johnson, asked: “Do we have any figures about anything?”

Anderson said: “I find this absolutely staggering that the big boss hasn’t got a clue, not just on this question, but nearly every other question we’ve asked today. Why is that?”

“Mr Ridley is looking for the numbers and we will send them to you,” Rycroft replied.

At prime minister’s questions, Starmer said Sunak had the “reverse Midas touch”, adding: “On their watch migration has just trebled and he is giving the house a lecture about targets. He is lost in La-La Land. There can be few experiences more haunting for the members opposite than hearing this prime minister claim that he is going to sort out a problem.”

The Labour leader pointed to claims by the former home secretary Suella Braverman that Sunak reneged on his agreement with her to introduce harsher immigration measures in exchange for her support in the 2022 Conservative leadership contest.

He also highlighted immigration minister Robert Jenrick’s claims in the Commons on Tuesday that he wished stronger immigration reforms could have been brought forward last year.

“The immigration minister thinks the prime minister is failing because apparently nobody will listen to his secret plan, the former home secretary thinks he is failing because of his ‘magical thinking’, the current home secretary [James Cleverly] thinks he is failing.

“The prime minister seems to be the only person on the Tory benches without his own personal immigration plan. Cleary his own side don’t have any faith in him. Why should the public?”

Sunak defended his record and claimed the “toughest action ever taken to reduce legal migration” had “yet to be felt”.