With the High Court ruling bringing the Rwanda asylum plan one step closer, Rhys Clyne says the Home Office must now publish its evaluation plan in full
The High Court has ruled that it is lawful for the government to, in certain circumstances, send asylum seekers arriving in the UK by small boat to Rwanda to have their claims determined by the Rwandan government rather than the UK. The legal battles over the proposal are not over, with an appeal highly likely. But nevertheless, the home secretary is closer to realising her “dream” of implementing the controversial scheme.
All eyes turn to the Home Office to see whether ministers will attempt to launch another flight of asylum seekers to Rwanda following the ruling, but before the conclusion of subsequent appeals. To do so, Braverman will need to answer the questions also raised by the judgement, about how her department assesses the individual circumstances of each case to determine whether, on the terms of the policy and in law, it is appropriate to remove each individual to Rwanda.
The value for money case for the policy is unmade – which means evaluation of success will be vital
Earlier in the year the Home Office permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft, requested a ministerial direction from then home secretary, Priti Patel, on the grounds that the civil service was unable to prove the scheme would provide good value for public money. Officials could not make this case because of a lack of evidence that the policy would achieve its principal aim – deterring people from crossing the Channel in small boats.
As Rycroft has repeated throughout the year, this position has not changed. There is no new evidence to support the government’s case. International comparisons, such as with Australia’s offshore processing, are weak and, if anything, suggest the scheme is unlikely to achieve its objective. It will remain impossible for the Home Office to prove the case for the scheme’s deterrent effect and, therefore, its value for money until new evidence is available.
It is ultimately up to ministers to decide whether to go ahead with the scheme’s launch without that supporting evidence. The ministerial direction and ongoing support from Braverman and Sunak suggest they intend to do so. In those circumstances, determining whether the scheme does or does not deter people from attempting the dangerous crossing will only be possibly by properly evaluating its impact as the scheme is implemented.
That evaluation will need to identify and weigh the impact of the scheme on arrivals by small boat against other factors, such as the Navy’s operations in the Channel, prevention by French and joint authorities, geopolitical changes, and the weather. It will need to identify if the deterrent effect is strong enough to deter the thousands of arrivals, despite the reported small scale of Rwandan processing capacity. It will need to assess the effect of any changes on the asylum backlog. And it will need to explain how the scheme sits alongside the government’s wider approach to asylum, as set out by Sunak.
The Home Office should publish its evaluation plan before the first flight takes off
The Home Office has not published an evaluation plan for the Rwanda scheme. Ministers must do so in full as soon as possible, and certainly before the scheme is fully launched.
The Evaluation Task Force, a joint Treasury-Cabinet Office unit that acts as a centre of excellence for evaluation in Whitehall, recently set out its three aims for government evaluation, one of which is that departments “have a transparent approach to their evaluation” by publishing outputs promptly. 10 Evaluation Task Force, The Evaluation Task Force Strategy 2022-2025
Doing so makes evaluations better, improves policy as a result and, ultimately, enhances outcomes for the UK. Migration and asylum experts outside government, and people with lived experience of the system, should be able to contribute to the government’s evaluation plan before it is put into practice. The outgoing ‘what works’ national adviser, David Halpern, recently explained to an IfG event why it is so important evaluation plans are in place before policies are implemented, otherwise evaluation is impossible to do properly.
The Home Office should take this particularly seriously. One of the five themes of its improvement plan, created in response to the review of the department’s failures during the Windrush Scandal, is “openness to scrutiny”. 11 Home Office, Windrush Lessons Learned Review response: comprehensive improvement plan This commits the department to “a fundamental cultural shift” towards more external engagement in policy making. So far, the department has not yet introduced a promised independent migrants’ commissioner. It has made slow progress towards reviewing the remit and role of the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI). And on Rwanda it has been criticised for failing to talk to sector experts during the policy’s development and refusing to publish information that informed ministers’ decisions. 12 J Dunton, ‘Government loses secrecy bid over Rwanda policy documents’, Civil Service World
Publishing the evaluation plan for the Rwanda scheme would signal that ministers want to make real improvements to the asylum system, not just up the rhetoric. It would also show that they are serious about changing the way the Home Office works. Refusing to do so would send the opposite, dispiriting, message.