The Justice Secretary has defended the Government’s announcement of a “task force” targeting corrupt immigration lawyers as critics branded it a “red herring” to distract from the asylum backlog.
Alex Chalk said the Whitehall unit, for which there is no new funding, will aim to ensure that advocates who are found to be responsible for submitting fraudulent claims are “convicted, punished and disgraced”.
Touring broadcast studios on Tuesday, he said it is right to root out a “tiny minority” of lawyers damaging the reputation of others in the profession.
It came as the public affairs director for the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, accused the Government of “lawyer-bashing” with the announcement of work that is not new.
David McNeill said the “task force” – bringing together civil servants, regulatory bodies and law enforcement – has been in existence for months, despite its “official launch” by the Home Office on Tuesday.
The Justice Secretary acknowledged that the unit has been in operation for some time, but told BBC Breakfast: “The Law Society is right that it’s a tiny minority of lawyers and the overwhelming majority of lawyers in this country do an extremely important job.
“However, there is a small minority that are doing terrible damage, not just because they’re coming up with false claims which means that people are remaining here who ought not to remain here, but doing terrible damage to the reputation of lawyers. And it is absolutely right that we crack down on them.”
The Law Society questioned “what, if anything, the Government is announcing today” and said the necessary powers are already in place to deal with immigration advisers engaged in misconduct.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) prohibits lawyers from deceiving courts, and any act of dishonesty or lack of integrity may result in them being struck off.
As part of the announcement, the Home Office said those ultimately found guilty of helping people remain in the country by fraudulent means could face life imprisonment, which is already the maximum sentence for assisting unlawful migration under the Immigration Act 1971.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr McNeill accepted that improper practice sometimes occurs in the industry, but added: “It’s not in our interest to have any solicitor acting improperly or crookedly… this announcement today is something of a red herring.
“This task force which they tout with such aggressive language has been in existence for months now so really, from our perspective, it just looks like a bit of lawyer-bashing as a distraction from really bad news for the Government on the number of asylum seekers now accommodated in hotels – 50,000.”
Mr Chalk said the Professional Enablers Taskforce has been developing resources to ensure Home Office lawyers are “better trained to identify evidence of fraud”.
This has included the development of a new training package for frontline staff who work in the immigration system to help them identify and report suspect activity.
The Justice Secretary, a former barrister, said professionals should not be granted “immunity” from the law “simply because they are lawyers”, telling GB News he is “absolutely comfortable” with the crackdown.
But Bar Council chairman Nick Vineall KC warned the task force “must not fall into the trap of identifying lawyers with the causes of their clients, nor should it assume that misbehaviour by clients amounts to misbehaviour by lawyers”.
For Labour, shadow justice secretary Steve Reed said it is “too little too late” and the “buck stops” with the Conservatives, accusing them of having “sat idly by for 13 years while illegal migration has spun out of control”.
He said: “Now, weak as ever, they are setting up a talking shop instead of cracking down on those who abuse our immigration system.”
It comes as the Government kicks off a “stop the boats” week of linked announcements on immigration.
The number of people in the UK waiting for a decision on their asylum application stood at nearly 173,000 in March, according to the latest available data – the equivalent of around 345 Bibby Stockholm barges.
The first migrants boarded the giant vessel – moored off the Dorset coast in Portland – on Monday, while others were granted a last-minute reprieve after a series of legal challenges.
Mr Chalk admitted it is “frustrating” that just 15 have arrived on the 500-capacity vessel but insisted it “doesn’t diminish our resolve to solve this”.
He defended Conservative Party deputy chairman Lee Anderson, who said asylum seekers complaining about the Bibby Stockholm barge should “f*** off back to France”.
“Lee Anderson expresses the righteous indignation of the British people. Yes, he does it in salty terms, that’s his style, but his indignation is well placed,” the minister told LBC.
Former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, currently an Independent MP, wrote on Twitter: “A new low even for the Tories.”
Taxpayer money is being spent on housing migrants “in some cases in four-star hotels”, Mr Chalk confirmed, which he said is why the Government is looking at cheaper alternatives.
Around 20 asylum seekers did not board the barge as planned on Monday because their transfers were “cancelled” after lawyers challenged the decisions.
More men with luggage were pictured walking up a gangway to the barge on Tuesday.
The Home Office said the first asylum seekers are now being housed on the barge after it “successfully completed all health, fire and safety checks”, adding: “The number of people on board will increase gradually with more arrivals later this week and in the coming months.”
The number of migrants staying in hotels as temporary accommodation stood at more than 50,000 in June – up by about 10,000 since December, according to official figures.
Mr Chalk said the backlog of asylum claims has decreased by 17,000 over “recent weeks”.