It emerged last week that home secretary Priti Patel had ordered officials to rewrite the UK’s interpretation of maritime laws to allow Border Force to carry out the controversial practice, with members being given special training to turn around small boats.
The plans were met with criticism from lawyers, cross-party MPs and charities, who warned that the policy would likely be unworkable and questioning the legal basis on which the practice could be carried out.
The French interior minister said his country would not cooperate with the plan, saying it would “not accept any practices that are contrary to maritime law”.
During a parliamentary evidence session on Wednesday, permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft confirmed that Border Force officers had been “preparing and trialling” the “new maritime tactic”, but that it had “not been deployed yet”.
When asked by Conservative MP Tim Loughton whether the policy was legal, Mr Rycroft replied that there was a legal basis for it to be used “in certain circumstances”.
Asked what this legal basis was, Mr Rycroft said that it was the advice from law officers to the government which he “must not disclose”.
Pressed by Mr Loughton to refer to the international maritime legal basis on which they think it would be legal for the Home Office to use pushbacks, Mr Rycroft said: “There is a legal basis to operate this policy in certain circumstances. The legality depends on the circumstances.”
Second permanent secondary secretary Patricia Hayes, who was also being questioned, said the Home Office did not want to provide detail on operations publicly so as not to give people smugglers arranging the boat crossings an advantage on tactics.
In response, Mr Loughton said: “If you bring this into operation and a boat sinks as a result, you’ll be in front of this committee and various other committees having to explain exactly that.”
Mr Rycroft also confirmed that the practice would only lead to a “small proportion” of small boats being turned back to France, later conceding it would be closer to 1 per cent than 49 per cent.
Responding to the committee hearing, Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, said Mr Rycroft’s answers “gave the impression that the government announced the pushback policy for its publicity value rather than to do anything useful to address the needs of those making these perilous crossings”.
“Home Office officials have been put in the hopeless position of having to defend a ministerial policy which is life-threateningly dangerous and almost certainly unlawful,” he added.
It comes after the Home Office’s assessment of proposed immigration and asylum reforms found there was “limited” evidence this would reduce the number of people trying to cross the Channel.
The equality impact assessment for the Nationality and Borders Bill, published last week, states: “Deploying these measures does advance the legitimate aim of encouraging asylum seekers to claim in the first safe country they reach and not undertaking dangerous journeys facilitated by smugglers to get to the UK, though evidence supporting the effectiveness of this approach is limited.”
The document also repeatedly states that any discrimination would be “objectively justified” as a “proportionate means” of achieving the policy objectives of the plans, namely to “deter illegal entry into the UK”.
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