The number of asylum seekers being removed to Rwanda under Rishi Sunak’s £240 million scheme could be “quite low”, the Home Secretary has conceded.
James Cleverly told MPs on Wednesday he was unable to say how many of the 33,085 people identified as potentially eligible would be sent to Kigali if flights get off the ground.
He told the Commons Home Affairs Committee the total could be “nearly at that figure”, but said it could also be small if other work to reduce small boat crossings is successful.
So far, the UK has paid Rwanda £240 million under the Prime Minister’s plan to “stop the boats”, but ministers expect to pay an additional £50 million next year.
No migrants who make unauthorised crossings have been removed because of the legal challenges that resulted in the Supreme Court finding the scheme unlawful.
But the Home Office has identified 33,085 people as eligible for removal since Mr Sunak’s Rwanda policy became law in July under the Illegal Migration Act.
The Government’s sweeping asylum reforms are meant to see people deemed to be arriving in the country illegally “detained and swiftly removed” as well as being denied the right to claim asylum but parts of the law are yet to come into force.
Under persistent questioning over how many of those people will end up in Rwanda, Mr Cleverly insisted the scheme remains “uncapped” but said he could not “speculate” about the figure.
“The answer is entirely dependent on other work we’re doing in parallel,” he added.
“It may well be if we’re successful with returns agreements, if circumstances in other countries change, it may well be that the figure is quite low.
“It could be nearly at that figure, but the point is the number of people that we might send to Rwanda is entirely contingent on a whole set of other work that we’re doing.”
Mr Sunak is trying to revive the policy by passing legislation deeming Rwanda a safe country and ratifying a new treaty with Kigali. The Rwanda Bill is currently making its way through a House of Lords that is hostile to the scheme.
Mr Cleverly also had a tussle with committee chairwoman Dame Diana Johnson over whether the 94,062 asylum claims awaiting a decision is a “backlog”.
He told her: “You keep describing it as a backlog – it’s the caseload. It’s a queue.
“I think your use of the word backlog implies something that I disagree with.
“There are a number of cases that we’re working through. At any given time someone who has arrived will be added to the caseload, by your definition if someone arrived yesterday that would be a backlog.”
Mr Cleverly joked that “sessions like this are a trip to the dentist, we can all pretend we enjoy it – we really don’t – but we also recognise it is quite important”.
Mr Sunak had promised to “abolish” by the end of last year the “legacy” backlog of 92,601 claims made before the end of June 2022.
The Home Office was reprimanded by the UK Statistics Authority for claiming it had been achieved when 4,537 of those applications were still outstanding.
It comes as the Home Office’s permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft told the committee the Bibby Stockholm barge housing asylum seekers in Portland, Dorset, currently costs £120 per person per night to run, compared with the latest average of £140 per person per night in hotels.
The running costs “exclude set-up costs” and mean the barge “still meets the value for money test”, he said in a letter to committee chairwoman Dame Diana Johnson.
“When those are included, there is a total-life saving from use of the Bibby Stockholm of £800,000.”
The overall price per person changes depending on how many people are on board and the average hotel costs also “fluctuate” as the Government seeks to end the use of such accommodation.