Rishi Sunak failed to guarantee he will be able to stop small boat crossings in the English Channel by the next general election as he acknowledged the complexity of the issue.
The Prime Minister expressed his commitment to stopping the boats and highlighted that the number of illegal migrants making the dangerous journey this year is “down for the first time in some years”.
However, he said he would not be being “straight” with the public if he claimed the crisis can be solved overnight.
His comments came during a visit to a nursery in North Yorkshire, during which he was asked whether he would be able to sort the small boats crisis by the next election.
Mr Sunak told broadcasters: “One of my five priorities is to stop the boats. The current system is both unsustainable and is completely unfair, but particularly unfair on British taxpayers who are forking out millions of pounds to house illegal migrants in hotels and local communities.
“That’s not right. We’ve got to put a stop to that. And we’re working on it.
“It’s not an easy problem to fix. I never said we would be able to solve it overnight. It will take time and we have to attack it from lots of different ways. But I am pleased that the number of illegal migrants crossing this year is down for the first time in some years.
“That shows that our plans are working, but of course there’s still more to do and people should know I am determined to grip this problem, and that’s why one of my five priorities is to stop the boats.”
Pressed again on whether it will be done by the next election, he said: “I want it to be done as soon as possible, but I also want to be honest with people that it is a complex problem. There is not one simple solution and it can’t be solved overnight and I wouldn’t be being straight with people if I said that was possible.”
Almost 18,000 migrants have arrived in the UK after crossing the Channel so far this year.
Some 1,278 people made the journey last week, with crossings taking place on six out of seven days. This takes the provisional total for 2023 to date to 17,957.
The average number of migrants per boat rose to around 67 on Sunday when 337 people were detected in five boats. On days with multiple crossings, this is the highest daily average per boat so far this year, PA news agency analysis shows. But there was a single crossing recorded on February 15 with 69 people on board.
During the same visit, Mr Sunak also defended plans to house migrants on an RAF base in Lincolnshire that has historic links to the Second World War Dambusters raid.
Asked about the risk that moving asylum seekers into RAF Scampton poses to a multimillion-pound investment, he told regional broadcasters: “Of course the Home Office and other authorities are in dialogue with all local partners to work through all the outstanding issues and questions.”
On why migrants housed in Lincolnshire hotels are not set to be moved to RAF Scampton, with local businesses facing a prolonged squeeze as a result, he added: “We are investing in driving growth in the local economy, and at the same time we are taking decisive action to stop the boats.
“That is why our new law in Parliament is so important. It has been opposed by other parties but I think it is the right thing to do, and we are taking action to reduce, as I say, the amount that taxpayers are spending on housing illegal migrants in hotels.
“It is millions of pounds a day – that is not right, it is not fair.”
With a capacity of more than 500, the Government also hopes that the use of the Bibby Stockholm barge, together with former military bases, will help reduce the amount it is spending on hotel bills.
However, just days after the first migrants arrived at the vessel, they had to be removed because of the discovery of Legionella bacteria in the water supply.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters: “The Home Office are still awaiting the results of the further tests. As I said, they want to re-embark people as soon as possible once those tests have been completed.”
He added: “We continue to work closely with the contractors on this to make sure that the accommodation is appropriate and we have all the tests in place.”