Home Office ordered to give full cost of Rwanda deportation plan

<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

The Home Office has been ordered to give parliament the “full and frank” costings of the scheme to deport migrants to Rwanda, after admitting projected initial spending had doubled to almost £300m.

Matthew Rycroft, the permanent secretary of the Home Office, has been asked to attend the public accounts committee on Monday to explain, after the initial costs of the scheme rose from £140m to £290m.

He was also accused of showing an “extreme lack of respect” towards the home affairs and public accounts committee over the way the Home Office disclosed the costs, days after refusing to be transparent.

No migrants have been deported to Rwanda because the courts have ruled the scheme unlawful, despite payments totalling £240m already. A further £50m will be given to Rwanda next year regardless of whether flights go ahead as a result of Rishi Sunak’s emergency legislation to deem it a safe country and to disapply parts of human rights law.

The government initially said the scheme was costing £120m in payments to Rwanda for its economic development, plus £20m for set-up costs of the scheme providing up to 300 hotel places for migrants.

A further £100m was paid to Rwanda in economic development costs in April, signed off by the former home secretary Suella Braverman, with the money due to be spent on education, healthcare, job creation and other domestic priorities in the African country.

The scheme will cost even more when it gets under way, with £169,000 due to be spent on deporting each migrant. This would amount to £50m if 300 hotel placements were taken up. Already, about £1.5m has been spent on legal costs for the scheme, and there will be additional costs of setting up an appeals procedure in Rwanda, plus the legal expense of dealing with any further challenges.

In a joint letter to Rycroft, Diana Johnson, the chair of the home affairs committee, and Meg Hillier, the chair of the public accounts committee, said: “We were surprised and disappointed that after refusing to answer questions about spending on the Rwanda scheme in response to direct questions on 29th November and 4th December from both our respective committees, you published a letter at 9.45pm which had been sent to us at 9.16pm on 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. This shows an extreme lack of respect for our committees.

“Moreover, the information provided does not answer our questions in full.”

The committee chairs said they had referred the matter to the National Audit Office, and that they expected “full and frank answers” at the public hearing on Monday, before a parliamentary vote on the emergency legislation on Tuesday.

Sunak himself is facing questions over whether he misled MPs about the costs of the scheme, when he said on Wednesday that there had been “no incremental money that has been provided”.

Downing Street said he did not misinform parliament, as an £100m in extra funding for the country was part of a parallel economic development scheme.

Asked if Sunak had been inaccurate, his deputy spokesperson said this was not the case as there were “two different strands” of funding – to process asylum seekers and a wider aid budget – and that the prime minister had been referring to the first.

“This is as set out in the original memorandum of understanding with Rwanda. It was always set out that there would be funding attached to what is an economic and migration partnership,” she said.

“It’s clear in the MOU that the migration and economic development partnership involves subsequent funding. We’ve been setting that out in annual reports, and obviously provided that update to the home affairs select committee. But it would always involve additional funding focused on economic development.”

It was Braverman, sacked as home secretary by Sunak last month, who approved the extra £100m, the spokesperson added: “It’s part of the existing MOU. So it’s an operational decision for the home secretary to sign off. That’s the usual process.”

Asked if it was possible to estimate the total cost of the five-year deal under which asylum seekers who arrive in the UK will be deported to Rwanda and have their claims processed there, with no prospect of return to the UK, the spokesperson added: “I don’t have anything further to set out.”

The No 10 spokesperson said this decision was a matter of “balancing public interest in the costs associated with the partnership as set out in the MOU and balancing that with commercial sensitivity in the delivery of the partnership”.

Asked why an agreement between two governments had commercial sensitivities, she said this was a matter for the Home Office. The Home Office was contacted for comment.

Hiller told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that her committee had been pushing to discover what the real cost of the scheme would be, saying: “This is all something cloak and dagger behind the scenes.”

She added: “It seemed pretty obvious to us that if it was being changed, this programme, there would be money attached to that. And we asked that direct question and didn’t get an answer.”

Sunak faces a crunch point on Tuesday when MPs vote for the first time on an emergency bill intended to set aside November’s supreme court decision to bar the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda.

No 10 said that MPs would be provided in advance with evidence to show that Rwanda was a safe country, and setting out further details of the plan.

The bill gives ministers the power to ignore judgments that come from Strasbourg but stops short of leaving or formally derogating from the European convention on human rights, as demanded by rightwing Conservative MPs, prompting the resignation of the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick.

If Sunak were to give in to the demands of Jenrick, Braverman and others, he could risk ministerial resignations from MPs from the party’s centre, such as members of the One Nation group.

On Thursday, Sunak held an emergency press conference to insist his Rwanda plan would still work. He will spend all weekend working at Downing Street, with tasks expected to include phone calls to wavering MPs.

Asked what Sunak’s words to Tory backbenchers would be, the spokesperson said: “You heard from him directly yesterday with the message that this is the the right and swiftest approach to get flights off the ground, and that he’s determined to deliver it.”