Ex-ministers accuse Priti Patel of ‘patronising’ voters with ‘unworkable’ policies to reduce Channel crossings

Former ministers say ‘macho-sounding’ asylum proposals will never come to fruition

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Friday 19 November 2021 09:36
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What's behind the Channel crossing 'crisis'? | Behind The Headlines

The Home Office has been accused of “underestimating the intelligence of voters” with “unworkable” policies that it claims will reduce the number of migrants entering the UK by crossing the Channel.

Two former government ministers are among those who have criticised the department for pushing out “macho-sounding” plans to curb sea arrivals to the UK, while the home secretary, Priti Patel, is accused of “making it up as she goes along”.

Plans suggested include processing asylum seekers offshore, despite claims the policy would not work in practice.

Government proposals leaked to the media on Thursday indicated that ministers were holding discussions with Albania to form an agreement under which asylum seekers who had crossed the Channel would be flown to the eastern European country, 1,500 miles away, in order to be processed.

Justice secretary Dominic Raab declined to deny that ministers were hoping to reach such a deal, confirming that discussions were under way to remove migrants within seven days of their arrival in Britain.

However, within hours of the leak being published, the Albanian ambassador to the UK, Qirjako Qirko, told The Independent that the reports were “totally fake” and that such an arrangement would “never happen” because it would be “against international law”.

It marks the latest in a series of proposals floated by the UK government, aimed at reducing the number of people entering in the UK by crossing the Channel in small boats, which have later emerged to be unworkable.

In March, it was reported that ministers planned to process asylum seekers in Gibraltar and on islands off the Scottish coast – which both governments quickly passed off as untrue. In June, it was reported that Rwanda would be used as an offshore processing hub – but it soon emerged that the country had not agreed to such a policy.

David Davis, who served as shadow immigration minister for the Conservatives from 2003 to 2008, told The Independent he believed his party was “underestimating the intelligence of voters” by floating “unworkable” policies – describing it as “patronising”.

“My feeling is that it’s coming from young policy special advisers in No 10, who’ve taken a focus group or polling and tried to translate that into a very macho-sounding policy. My experience of macho-sounding policies is [that] more often than not, they go wrong,” he said.

“I think they’re making the presumption that voters are more hardline, in the sense that they’re less aware of the problems. ‘Never underestimate your voters’ is a very good maxim in this area.”

The politician, who has tabled an amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill that would drop a clause allowing for UK asylum seekers to be processed overseas, added that the government’s “very firm and strong language” around Channel crossings had “increased the size of the political issue”.

“It comes from a belief that it is politically advantageous, but it starts in a populist politics rather than thinking it through carefully. In reality this policy would be expensive and ineffective,” he said.

Lord David Blunkett, who served as home secretary between 2001 and 2004 under Tony Blair, said that home secretary Priti Patel was “making it up as she goes along” when it came to asylum policies.

“In one breath she smears the Albanian community here as organised criminals who should be sent home, and in the next breath, expects the Albanian government to act as a transit camp for removing asylum seekers,” he said.

“All these ideas were explored 20 years ago, and none of them added up to either a practical or coherent plan; no adherence to international conventions.”

A former senior immigration official in the Home Office, who did not wish to be named, described the recent Albania proposal as “utterly impractical and ludicrous”.

“It’s headline-grabbing. I can’t help but feel either the people in the Home Office are all either completely stupid or they just know it’s not going to work. In the end it just makes them look stupid,” he said.

“It comes out with mad proposals that try to move the story on in their favour for a week or so, then cause them more problems in the long term. It’s complete and utter madness. It’s impractical, and I can’t believe people don’t know it wouldn’t work.

“It panders to some of their backbenchers I suppose, but surely they’re bright enough to realise that it’s unworkable.”

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Ms Patel claimed France was “overwhelmed” by a “mass migration crisis” which she blamed on “Schengen open borders” across Europe.

“Let’s not forget that the real problem on illegal migration flows is the EU has no border protections whatsoever – Schengen open borders,” she said.

“I think it’s fair to say they [France] are overwhelmed. That is a fact.

“When you think about the flows, what are they doing? They are absolutely patrolling the beaches [but] I would maintain the numbers are so significant that have they got enough resources? We are constantly pressing France on this.”

A Home Office spokesperson said it was right that all options should be kept on the table for future consideration, adding: “Migrants making these dangerous crossings are putting their lives at risk, and it is vital we do everything we can to prevent them, and break the business model of the criminal gangs exploiting people.

“People should claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive in, and as part of our response it is important we have a maritime deterrent in the Channel and work with international partners to put an end to these dangerous journeys.”

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