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  • Writer's pictureDanny Shaw

Flight to Rwanda - final call for Priti Patel

Updated: Apr 18, 2022

The most remarkable thing about the Home Secretary is that she is still Home Secretary.

Priti Patel is one of only five members of Boris Johnson's Cabinet to have held the same post since he came to office in July 2019. Some Ministers quit, others have been sacked but Patel, at the department of trapdoors and banana skins, has survived.

Back then, not many people would have predicted that. She was appointed 20 months after being forced to resign as International Development Secretary following a diplomatic and political scandal over a series of unauthorised meetings she'd had with Israeli officials. Then, a few months after taking over at the Home Office, disturbing reports began to surface about the way Patel had dealt with staff in Whitehall, culminating in the extraordinary spectacle of her most senior civil servant announcing that he was resigning and planning legal action for constructive dismissal.

Allegations of bullying hung over her during her first year as Home Secretary; an investigation found that she had not always treated civil servants with "consideration and respect”, concluding that her behaviour amounted to “bullying” and was in breach of the Ministerial Code. That would have been enough to torpedo most Cabinet careers but Johnson had already decided he would "stick with Priti”.

The Prime Minister’s loyalty towards her has meant that he, in return, has had her unwavering backing during turbulent times. The combative 50 year old has clearly not been a trusted and prolific media performer during the pandemic, as Dominic Raab, Grant Shapps and Michael Gove have been, but I’m sure Johnson has valued her ability to articulate forthright views on immigration, policing and race that play well among some Conservative backbenchers and key voters.

I remember one interview on LBC when Patel was asked whether she would “take the knee” in support of Black Lives Matter protests. “No I would not,” she replied, without missing a beat. The demonstrations were "dreadful". I can’t imagine many Ministers who would have answered in such a direct way.

In terms of policy, it is a struggle to pinpoint a major idea that Patel has trumpeted which she could justifiably claim to be hers. The recruitment of 20,000 police to make up for most of the officers lost during the austerity programme was promised by Johnson as part of his Tory leadership campaign; measures to combat domestic abuse were in train before she was appointed; the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is - as the name suggests - a hotchpotch of proposals from a variety of sources; reform of the immigration system was the logical extension of the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal and had been on the stocks for some time.

The deal with Rwanda is different. This is an agreement that, literally, bears Priti Patel’s signature. Her officials negotiated it under her command and with her blessing; she travelled to the country to rubber-stamp it; she has publicly taken ownership of it. The implementation of the policy, in all its detail, will be her responsibility - particularly because the Home Office Permanent Secretary, Matthew Rycroft, took the highly unusual step of refusing to sign it off, citing concerns about whether it will provide value for money.

Rycroft spelt out his doubts in a letter to Patel. As you would expect of a senior civil servant, he chose his words carefully, so it is worth reading them. "Value for money of the policy is dependent on it being effective as a deterrent. Evidence of a deterrent effect is highly uncertain and cannot be quantified with sufficient certainty to provide me with the necessary level of assurance over value for money," he wrote.

"I do not believe sufficient evidence can be obtained to demonstrate that the policy will have a deterrent effect significant enough to make the policy value for money. This does not mean that the MEDP {Rwanda agreement} cannot have the appropriate deterrent effect; just that it {sic} there is not sufficient evidence for me to conclude that it will," the letter said.

Rycroft has correctly identified the weakest aspect of the plan. The Government is providing the Rwandan Government with £120 million for "economic development and growth", plus an unspecified amount for the "delivery of asylum operations, accommodation and integration". That is a substantial investment in an unpredictable experiment which is fraught with risk. If the number of people making the perilous journey across the Channel in small boats plummets; if asylum-seeking numbers start to fall dramatically the Government will be able to claim that its policy - or even the prospect of it - has done the trick and saved money for taxpayers. But it will be impossible to prove.

People smuggling, like any crime, hinges on a number of factors. In the case of small boat crossings: wars, global patterns of migration, the effectiveness of patrols in France and the Channel, co-operation with international law enforcement partners, the provision of 'safe' asylum routes, economic conditions and the weather all play a part. Among all that, the possible deterrent effect of the Rwanda policy will be, as Rycroft points out, unquantifiable.

Besides which, the more likely scenario is that the scheme will struggle to get off the ground. Against a backdrop of protests and anger, the first asylum seekers selected for transfer to Rwanda will bring legal challenges, aided by some of the UK's smartest lawyers and campaigners. I expect the court cases will highlight not only multiple problems with the policy but, more significantly, the individual stories of the people the Government is trying to remove: they will no doubt include those who have fled torture, persecution, famine and war. Planes will either be prevented from taking off or will fly half empty. People smuggling gangs will therefore continue undeterred while Freedom of Information requests and Parliamentary answers reveal more details of the considerable costs of the programme.

In the short term, of course, the Rwanda announcement may deliver political and electoral benefits for Boris Johnson. Dispatching asylum seekers and outsourcing the processing of their claims to an African country is morally repugnant to many, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, but to others it’s exactly the type of robust action they want to see. It could persuade some doubters to vote for the Tories at the local elections in May and will almost certainly provide the Government with more ammunition in its attempt to pin the blame on human rights lawyers.

But it is an expensive and desperate gamble authored by a home secretary whose record on the small boats problem is marked by failure. She has consistently over promised and under delivered. In October 2019, Patel pledged to halve the number of crossings and render them an "infrequent phenomenon" through greater use of detection equipment and intelligence-sharing. The following summer, she gave the French £54.2 million to bolster patrols and security, on top of £28.2 million provided the previous year, and then created a new role, of Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, saying she was aiming to make the route "unviable". And last Autumn, the Home Secretary sanctioned a plan to turn boats back towards northern France. Experts said it was impractical but Patel pressed on with the idea. Last week - in a section of his speech announcing the Rwanda policy which went almost unnoticed - Johnson all but acknowledged that it wouldn't work.

The wonder of all this is that after nearly three years, after this litany of missteps and misjudgments, the Home Secretary has been afforded yet another opportunity to solve the small boats problem; a Labour incumbent would never have lasted this long. Surely there can be no more excuses now, no more French-blaming, no more lawyer-bashing. For Patel, it is Rwanda or bust.

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