Government accused of ‘hiding’ as MoD refuses to answer questions on Channel crossing involvement

Former Navy and Border Force officials raise alarm about plan to draft in military to combat rise in cross-Channel migration, warning that Navy vessels could serve as ‘honey pot’ and incentivise crossings

May Bulman
Wednesday 26 January 2022 16:36
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<p>The Defence Committee sought to question government representatives about the plans during an evidence session on Wednesday, but the MoD declined to put forward a minister or official</p>

The Defence Committee sought to question government representatives about the plans during an evidence session on Wednesday, but the MoD declined to put forward a minister or official

The government has been accused of “hiding from questions” after it refused to put forward a minister or official to give evidence to MPs on the military’s increased involvement in tackling small boat crossings.

Former senior Navy and Border Force officials have meanwhile raised concerns about placing Royal Navy vessels in the Channel, warning they could serve as a “honey pot” and encourage more asylum seekers to cross.

It emerged last week that the Royal Navy was to be put in charge of cross-Channel counter migration operations on the English coast, taking over from Border Force to take “operational primacy” of the situation.

The plans were reportedly part of a series of policy announcements – dubbed Operation Red Meat – in an attempt to appease furious Tory MPs who have been deluged with angry emails from constituents.

Defence secretary Ben Wallace said last week that the focus would be on ensuring that “nobody should arrive illegally in the UK on their own terms” and that all small boats must be intercepted before arriving. It is understood that the Navy does not intend to pursue “pushbacks” – a tactic put forward by the home secretary – as part of its new role in the Channel.

Cross-party MPs, including a number of Conservatives, raised concern in the House of Commons last week that the move would not curb the number of people reaching UK shores and would be an inappropriate use of military resources.

The Defence Committee sought to question government representatives about the plans during an evidence session on Wednesday, but the Ministry of Defence (MoD) declined to put forward a minister or official.

Vice Admiral and former Border Force director general Charles Montgomery and ex-Navy commander Tom Sharpe gave evidence instead.

Labour MP John Spellar, who was chairing the committee hearing, said it was “unfortunate” that no senior representative of the department had attended.

Shadow defence secretary John Healey meanwhile told The Independent ministers were “hiding from questions and creating confusion over the role of the Navy”.

Accusing the government of “failing” to reduce small boat crossings, he added: “The MoD have been dragged in to take charge of Channel operations but it’s not their job to do the government’s PR. The military are there to protect the nation, not to protect Tory ministers.

“To back up the Navy’s new command role in the Channel, the government needs to do serious work to secure proper security cooperation with France to protect our borders, break the smuggling gangs and prevent more deaths in the Channel.”

During the evidence session, both Mr Montgomery and Mr Sharpe expressed concern about the plan and the impact it could have.

Mr Sharpe told MPs that using naval vessels to turn back migrant boats would never be legal or safe, saying: “It’s inconceivable that that’s a sensible option.”

He added that placing more ships in the Channel to intercept small boats could “make the problem worse” by making crossing “safer and therefore more attractive”.

Mr Montogomery echoed his concerns, warning that using Navy vessels could serve as a “honey pot” and increase the number of people crossing because they would become a “prime target” for people trying to cross.

“If you’re starting objective is to stop the migrant flow, don’t do that,” he said

The former Border Force general secretary later told the committee: “It seems to me that the debate around Border Force and its maritime capabilities is all getting a bit focused on immigration through the Channel.

“Now that concerns me a bit because there’s a of a lot else that’s happening in this country which is at least as damaging if not more to our national security than the numbers who are coming across the Channel.”

The MoD has been approached for comment.

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