I’ve been told of “despair” among some Home Office officials over the government’s new policy to fly asylum seekers who enter the UK illegally to Rwanda, with concerns that there could be resignations in the department.
One source told me the atmosphere was “terrible”. Senior civil servants who hadn’t worked directly on the policy had not known it was coming, they added.
There are said to be particular worries about the potential cost of the overall policy ballooning, with multiple sources saying it could end up involving not just hundreds, but thousands of staff.
A lot of Tory MPs have voiced their support for the move - but there are suggestions officials in the Home Office are less enthusiastic, as Anushka Asthana reports
The Refugee Council said a similar policy in Australia has cost almost $10 billion since July 2013 – and processed 3,127 asylum seekers.
Whitehall sources told me there is even talk of whether a “ministerial direction” has been put in place over the policy. That is where the secretary of state issues a formal instruction to their department to proceed with a spending proposal, despite an objection (based on value for money) by their permanent secretary.
When I asked the Home Office if this had happened, they refused to say either way. But if it has – it will eventually become public.
A Home office source said simply that the department was fully committed to delivering the policy.
While there may be concerns among civil servants, Conservative MPs are absolutely delighted with the policy. In the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to newer, 2019 Tory MPs, who represent constituencies in the north and Midlands. Time and time again they say small boats into Dover is brought up repeatedly by their constituents.
When home secretary Priti Patel addressed MPs virtually from Rwanda, there was heavy support. There are some on the more liberal wing of the Tory party, however, who have their concerns.
Like Andrew Mitchell who has asked questions about cost, human rights and other safe routes. Many feel their constituents see the boats as a sign that the government is failing to tackle immigration.
On legal wrangles, it was notable that the prime minister admitted they will be hefty, and I know for a fact that all the legal consequences have not been considered by ministers. But does that matter to them?
I suspect that Boris Johnson and Priti Patel quite like the idea of coming up against lawyers or even civil servants who they say fail to understand the concerns of Brexit-voting constituents.
In fact, I’m told Patel said to MPs today: “Ignore the lefty lawyers”.
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On the cost point, supporters of such a policy in Cabinet say that it is very expensive to house asylum seekers in hotels in the UK. They say this runs to £1.7bn a year, and that there will be savings there if some are sent abroad. One said that only economic migrants will be sent to Rwanda, although I can’t see how they can make that distinction without the individuals entering the asylum process.
But none of that will necessary ease those concerns inside the Home Office. Despite the rumours of permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft’s concerns about money, he sent a glowing email to staff this morning about the policy.
The note – which has been leaked to me – talks about “closing down the dangerous business of people smuggling”. Mr Rycroft insists that today’s package – including the partnership with Rwanda, MoD boats and a new reception centre for asylum seekers - will help deliver that.
“Next week we’ll host an all-staff call where we will share more details about the measures and answer questions,” he says – although sources tell me that the Q&A could get spiky given the level of dissatisfaction with the policy.
“It is ministers who decide, and civil servants who deliver policy, but for some inside the Home Office, this might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” said a source, referring to potential resignations.
The worries about the policy are widespread – from the fact that it will worst affect those from countries not covered by current schemes (Ukraine and some people from Afghanistan); that there are claims of torture in detention facilities in Rwanda, with our own government criticising the country’s refusal to investigate human rights violations just last year; and there are questions over whether it will actually deter individuals.
Mr Johnson says it will. But on the wider policy in the Borders bill – to criminalise those arriving by boat – the government’s own equality impact assessment says there is limited evidence as to whether it will deter people, and actually says it could encourage more risky crossings.
Although it was briefed Thursday morning that the Rwanda policy would be only for single men, civil servants were told that only unaccompanied children would be exempt. When I put this to the Home Office they admitted that it was just children and also that families would not be separated. There are some worries that could encourage people to bring children on the perilous journeys.
For all the worries – there is an acceptance that something needs to be done.
One senior official argued that a deal with France could solve the problem, under which they accept the boats when they are turned back, but the UK takes some people directly from France. However, for all the reasons outlined above, that is not a political palatable solution for this government.