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Home Office officials unable to set out a plan B for 40,000 asylum seekers in scope for removal to Rwanda


Permanent Under-Secretary of State tells Public Accounts Committee full focus is on plan A of operationalising Rwanda plan

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The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee held a significant evidence session with Home Office officials on Monday as part of an inquiry into asylum accommodation and the UK's migration partnership with Rwanda.

Home Office buildingImage credit: UK GovernmentAppearing in front of the Committee for the Home Office were Matthew Rycroft, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State, Simon Ridley, the Second Permanent Secretary, Dan Hobbs, Director General for the Migration and Borders Group, and Joanna Rowland, Director General for the Customer Services Group.

The transcript for the wide-ranging session runs to 58 pages and it can be downloaded here or read online here.

Playing down a report in The Times claiming the Government was actively talking to four other countries to set up partnerships for the third country removal of asylum seekers, Matthew Rycroft said the Home Office was very much focused on pursuing plan A of operationalising the migration partnership with Rwanda.

He added that much effort had gone into the new treaty between the UK and Rwanda and the accompanying Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, and into preparations to operationalise the partnership so that flights can start as soon as possible.

"Operationalising the partnership means getting flights to Rwanda. Government policy is to get flights to Rwanda as soon as possible after Royal Assent and ratification of the treaty. The Home Secretary and the Prime Minister will set out what that means in detail after Royal Assent and ratification," Rycroft explained.

While parliamentary ping pong continued yesterday with the House of Lords voting in favour of four new amendments to the Rwanda Bill, it is thought that the Lords will likely pass the Bill when it next returns to the second chamber.

During questioning by the Public Accounts Committee, Matthew Rycroft agreed that the expectation was for the Bill to receive Royal Assent this week or next.

Committee member Olivia Blake MP asked the Home Office officials what was the latest estimate on the number of people that are impacted by the duty to remove under the Illegal Migration Act, which came into force on 7 March 2023. These are people in scope for relocation to Rwanda.

As the Home Office's Dan Hobbs explained to the Committee: "The duty to remove applies to anyone who arrives from a safe third country illegally in the UK. On the impact assessment, as published, broadly it is anyone who is arriving by small boat or otherwise from a safe third country. I do not have the precise modelling number in front of me, but since 7 March the number is around 30,000 so far that fall under the purview of the Illegal Migration Act, although that has not yet been commenced, as the Committee will be aware."

A notable exchange followed, with Committee member Tim Loughton MP stating that it was probable that the figure by now was over 40,000 people who are "entirely in limbo" as their asylum claims are not being assessed.

While the 40,000 are in scope to be removed to Rwanda, Loughton asked whether they might be subject to some form of amnesty, given it was not practical to remove such a large number. The Home Office officials answered that there was no plan for an amnesty, but could not say what would happen to them beyond theoretical relocation to Rwanda. Matthew Rycroft suggested that the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary will "very soon" set out what will happen to them.

The exchange is well worth reading in full and it is reproduced below:

Q54 Tim Loughton: This is quite an important number, isn't it? It is a growing number, and it can only really be growing. Since the terms of the Illegal Migration Act came in, where anybody has arrived in a boat or from another safe third country, the Government have a duty to remove them without assessing asylum claims—with a few exceptions, as I think you have demonstrated before, Mr Hobbs. Is that right?

Dan Hobbs: Correct, although the duty has not been commenced, so the duty does not apply. It is set out in the legislation, but that piece of the legislation has yet to be commenced.

Q55 Tim Loughton: So you do not have a duty to remove anybody still arriving on a boat now?

Dan Hobbs: They are inadmissible under the Nationality and Borders Act. The duty to remove measure under the Illegal Migration Act has not yet been commenced.

Q56 Tim Loughton: So that figure of 30,000 or whatever, and the now approximately 6,200 who have come across the Channel in 2024, including over 500 over the weekend: we do not have a duty to remove them as it stands, and they could apply for asylum?

Dan Hobbs: The duty to remove is not in place, but they are inadmissible under the terms of the Nationality and Borders Act. They are already inadmissible to the UK asylum system and are therefore pending relocation. Their asylum claim is not admitted unless they fall under one of the exemptions. The duty on the Secretary of State to remove them has yet to commence.

Q57 Tim Loughton: And that figure is likely to be in excess of roughly 30,000, we think, but you do not have the exact number?

Dan Hobbs: Broadly, since 7 March.

Q58 Tim Loughton: Mr Ridley, do you have the exact number?

Simon Ridley: The number that was last published is just over 33,000, and we will publish the next statistics in May.

Q59 Tim Loughton: How old is that 33,000?

Simon Ridley: We published it on 31 December.

Tim Loughton: So it was 33,000—

Simon Ridley: Up to 28 December.

Q60 Tim Loughton: At the end of '23, to which we can add at least 6,200 who we know have come across in boats. In total, we are talking about a figure that is probably now in excess of 40,000.

Simon Ridley: We will publish it in our next statistics in May.

Q61 Chair [Dame Diana Johnson]: Just to be clear, are they quarterly figures published just after the quarter?

Simon Ridley: Yes, we publish them in our Home Office stats every quarter.

Tim Loughton: But it is not beyond the bounds of rationality that we are looking at a figure of 40,000-plus. As it stands, they cannot apply for asylum and the Home Secretary is not yet obliged to remove them, so they are entirely in limbo.

Dan Hobbs: Correct. They are pending relocation at this time.

Q63 Tim Loughton: Which is effectively limbo, is it not?

Dan Hobbs: They are inadmissible under the Nationality and Borders Act.

Q64 Tim Loughton: They have no status in the UK and the Home Secretary is not yet obliged to remove them, so they are in limbo—I think that is how most people would describe them.

What is going to happen to them? If we now have 40,000 people who we are looking to remove—of whom a great number may be removed to countries that do not accept them, otherwise they might have been removed under other criteria already—that is a lot of additional seats on the planes to Rwanda when they start, isn't it? Or is something else going to affect their status?

Dan Hobbs: Under the terms of the Illegal Migration Act 2023, it goes to the arrivals after 7 March last year. The inadmissibility, once commenced, and the duty will apply to them, so they will fall under the current terms of the Act to be relocated to Rwanda.

Q65 Chair: All of them?

Dan Hobbs: Under the current legislation, that is the proposal: Rwanda, or another safe third country, as provided for in the legislation.

Q66 Tim Loughton: I think the more concise answer to my question is yes.

We have 40,000 people in limbo. What will happen to them when the duty of the Home Secretary is effective? How will we remove them if they are going to countries that will not receive them, which we know a large number will be? We have had discussions about those countries before. Or are you anticipating that the 40,000 and growing will be on flights to Rwanda at some stage?

Dan Hobbs: Under the terms of the Act and the existing legislation, they are inadmissible to our system, so they will fall for relocation to a safe third country, including Rwanda, which is our—

Q67 Tim Loughton: With respect, Mr Hobbs, you have said that several times. What is going to happen to them?

Dan Hobbs: They will be treated under the legislation once it's commenced.

Q68 Tim Loughton: And what is going to happen to them, practically? Where, practically, are the 40,000 people going to go?

Dan Hobbs: While they are in the UK, if they were otherwise destitute they are provided with accommodation and support. Once commenced, they will then be part of the workflow to go through the provisions set out in the Illegal Migration Act 2023 that allow them to bring claims, whether it would be on the basis of imminent, serious and irreversible harm if they were transferred to Rwanda, and then they go through that process.

Q69 Tim Loughton: With respect, we understand the process; what we don't understand is the solution. Permanent secretary, is it therefore possible, if not probable, that all or a large part of that 40,000 may be subject to some form of amnesty, because practically you just can't remove them?

Sir Matthew Rycroft: The Government are not planning to do that, Mr Loughton; the Government are planning to operationalise the Safety of Rwanda Bill as soon as there is Royal Assent, which is imminent, probably. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary will be setting out essentially the answer to your question, which is what steps are required in order to get the first flights off to Rwanda. The cohorts on those flights will be from that group of people.

Q70 Tim Loughton: Right. But it is 40,000, and the Home Office is not anticipating anything like 40,000 in the near future. They are going to remain in limbo, aren't they, unless you grant an amnesty?

Sir Matthew Rycroft: The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary will set that out very soon.