United Kingdom

Priti Patel 'furious over leaks claiming she is pushing mad' ideas for asylum seekers

There are also claims that Boris Johnson's top aides, including Dominic Cummings, are the targets of the briefing as Downing Street has been pushing heavily for the 'offshoring' policy

Friends of Priti Patel reacted with fury today over leaks claiming she was pushing ideas including processing asylum seekers thousands of miles from Britain. 

Reports have suggested the Home Secretary was looking at 'offshoring' refugees arriving in Britain in places including Ascension island and St Helena in the south Atlantic, Moldova in eastern Europe, Morocco and even Papua New Guinea.

Leaks now being investigated also suggested the Home Office had considered putting wave machines and a floating 'wall' in the Channel to stop migrant crossings in small boats and planned to house them on retired ferries. 

Although the France-facing wave machine idea has been dismissed the department has consulted maritime industries on the plausibility of a floating barrage between England and the continent, the Financial Times reported. The idea of using ferries to house refugees is also being considered.

But Ms Patel has been left furious at slew of negative briefing about the plans to crack down on abuses, on the day the number of migrants entering the UK in 2020 reached 7,000. 

There are also claims that Boris Johnson's top aides, including Dominic Cummings, are the targets of the briefing rather than Ms Patel, as Downing Street has been pushing heavily for the 'offshoring' policy.

Allies of the Home Secretary said she did not believe the negative briefing was coming from her department and sighted their guns on other parts of Government.

'People are having a bit of a free for all,' one said. 'There is a lot of briefing from the Cabinet Office. They have a task force (on offshoring) there.

They pointed out that much of the material was 'damaging to No10'. 'There are people who have spent the last three weeks going after the PM and now are going after his advisers.'

Meanwhile Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon lashed out at suggestions that some could be housed on Islands around Britain, including off the coast of Scotland. 

Home Office Permanent Secretary Matthew Rycroft told MPs today that the Cabinet Office has launched an investigation into the leaks. 

Marina with boats on the Solent at East Cowes, Isle of Wight. Migrants who land in Britain could be flown to hostels on the island

Migrants are currently being housed in Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent, which has been repurposed for them

New proposals are part of Priti Patel 's over-arching programme to crackdown on the Channel migrant crisis

2020 Channel migrant numbers hit 7,000 

At least 7,000 migrants have managed to cross to the UK in small boats this year.

Wednesday marked the 100th separate day when people have arrived in small boats in 2020, according to analysis by the PA news agency.

Migrants crammed into unsafe dinghies have reached the UK from France on more than one in every three days, data shows.

Immigration officials say screening centres are sometimes being 'overwhelmed' by the high numbers while staff remain conscious of the threat of Covid-19.

Meanwhile, charities continue to call on the Home Office to provide safe and legal routes for asylum seekers to put an end to the perilous Channel crossings.

In 2019, Home Secretary Priti Patel vowed to make such journeys an 'infrequent phenomenon', but UK law enforcement now believe the issue will be here for a while.

A handful of people were seen arriving in Dover on Wednesday as migrants attempt the crossing before the weather worsens in autumn and winter.

Wednesday marked the 100th separate day of 2020 where migrants have successfully crossed the Dover Strait to the UK in small boats, PA analysis shows.

This means that people are successfully making the dangerous crossing more than once every three days.

The number of migrants arriving each day is heavily weather-dependent, with fewer than 10 arrivals on some days and hundreds making it to Dover on others.

In September alone, nearly 2,000 migrants reached the UK, more than the figure for the entirety of 2019.

Immigration staff say the 'sheer volume' of migrant crossings in 2020 is 'unprecedented' and has presented significant challenges. 

Natalie Elphicke, MP for Dover and Deal, said: 'More needs to be done to bring an end to illegal trafficking and illegal migration. All options must be on the table to close down the route itself.

'The French must stop boats leaving in the first place, boats should be returned to France instead of bringing them into Britain, and we should return people who come in through these illegal routes, no ifs or buts.'

Asked at the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) whether he thought the investigation will take account of the timing of the leaks and whether they were politically motivated, he said: 'I'm sure they will look at all relevant factors.' 

The wave machine option plan was among 'blue sky' ideas looked at by officials to discourage migrants from trying to cross in small boats - although it was quickly rejected. 

The government has been working on ways to overhaul the creaking asylum system and crack down on abuse.

Sources complained that already-dismissed proposals such as creating a processing site on Ascension Island, more than 4,000 miles from the UK, were being leaked by officials who 'don't like the whole concept'.

Ironically, a snap YouGov poll has found the public backed the idea of by a margin of 40 per cent to 35 per cent. However, that proposal has already been ditched.  

An ally of the Home Secretary said 'offshoring' was being attacked by people who did not like it.

'It is a perfectly logical idea, but someone who doesn't like the whole concept said 'you can only do it if it happens 4,000 miles away' and leaked that,' they said.

The Isle of Wight proposal is understood to have 'problems', but other islands around the UK - including off the coast of Scotland - and old ferries are being seriously looked at.

'This is still very early days,' one source said. 

Ms Sturgeon waded into the row today, saying: 'They can rest assured that any proposal to treat human beings like cattle in a holding pen will be met with the strongest possible opposition from me.'

Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds added: 'The Tories are lurching from one inhumane and impractical idea to another.

'The idea of sending people to Ascension Island, creating waves in the English Channel to wash boats back and buying ferries and oil rigs to process asylum claims shows the Government has lost control and all sense of compassion.'

Mr Rycroft faced a grilling on the leaked plans when he faced MPs this morning.

Citing problems with the landing strips in St Helena and Ascension Island, PAC chairwoman Meg Hillier said the idea was 'in the realms of cloud cuckoo land', asking once more 'Can you just confirm whether or not civil service time was actually spent investigating something where you couldn't even land aircraft?'

Mr Rycroft said: 'What I can confirm is that the civil service has been responding to ministers' questions about how other countries deal with what is a global issue - migration.

'We have been leaving no stone unturned in doing that. We've been looking at what a whole host of other countries do in order to bring innovation into our own system. No decisions have been taken.

'No final proposals have been put to ministers or to anyone else.

'This is in the realm of the brainstorming stage of a future policy and, I think as ministers have said in the House, everything is on the table, and so it should be at this stage of the policy-making process.' 

Official documents marked 'sensitive' and produced earlier this month, summarise advice from officials at the Foreign Office, which was asked by No10 to 'offer advice on possible options for negotiating an offshore asylum processing facility similar to the Australian model in Papua New Guinea and Nauru'. 

Home Office aides have also been ordered to draw up feasibility studies for the hostel-type centres on islands within the British Isles.  

It emerged yesterday that officials had previously looked at locating a centre on Ascension Island or St Helena, thousands of miles away in the South Atlantic.

However, using such distant British overseas territories was ruled impractical over costs and logistical problems. Now, proposals for asylum centres on islands closer to home will be drawn up. 

Migrants could be processed on disused ferries moored off the coast under the plans being considered. 

Another option being considered is buying retired ferries and converting them into asylum-processing centres.  

Boris Johnson is keen to deter migrants from making dangerous crossings from France with the proposals.

Meanwhile, The Times has been told that the Home Office held discussions about moving migrants to decommissioned oil platforms in the North Sea while their applications are processed. 

However, ministers decided that it was a 'no go' .  

According to the Financial Times, other 'blue sky' options discussed include laying booms, barriers or even small boats together in parts of the Channel to stop migrants reaching the shore.

Another option was to have boats with pumps generating waves in a bid to force boats back into French waters.

However, the possibility was rejected amid concerns migrants in already-overladen boats would be capsized. 

The plan to move migrants to ships is thought more realistic and is being given serious consideration. 

The Home Office's top civil servant Matthew Rycroft told the Public Accounts Committee: 'This is in the realms of a brainstorming stage of a future policy, everything is on the table'

The leaks have sparked another briefing war around Ms Patel - with echoes of the angry row in the run-up to Home Office permanent secretary Philip Rutnam quitting last year and launching an employment tribunal.

One Whitehall source told Playbook: 'There is a rotten core of civil servants who have never gotten over Brexit... and fear the hard rain that is coming. They're the enemy within and will be rooted out.' 

Ms Patel is understood to believe the processing centres would deter migrants who hope to settle in UK towns and cities. 'Offshoring is still at the scoping stage and policy is yet to be decided,' said a Government source.

'But we are looking at all options to stop the small boats in the Channel, and offshoring is part of that. In terms of locations you could look at the Shetlands, the Isle of Wight, the Isle of Man, and those sorts of areas.

'There are also lots of little islands up by Scotland.'

The source added: 'This is all fairly down the track and it's not going to be an overnight thing. It will also require changes to legislation. And if we were going to build anything at any of these places we would have to ensure there are appropriate services and provisions for asylum seekers who are sent there.'

The source said any accommodation constructed on an island would not take the form of secure detention centres. 'We do not detain asylum seekers, they are free to come and go,' he said.

It comes after it was revealed last month that a former Second World War barracks in Folkestone, Kent was now being used by the Government to house up to 400 asylum seekers.

Opening the camp was intended to put out a discouraging message to anyone thinking of crossing the Channel illegally. The sparse conditions are very different from the comfortable accommodation complete with a £40 a week spending allowance some migrants have been given on arrival in Britain.

A group of people thought to be migrants are brought into Dover, Kent, by Border Force following a small boat incident in the Channel yesterday

Under a parallel project also being considered by the Government, asylum seekers who arrive in Britain could be flown out to processing centres in Morocco, Moldova or Papua New Guinea

Gibraltar, another British overseas territory, had been ruled out as a location because it is too small, it is understood.

The source added: 'We are looking at what other countries do in terms of offshoring asylum applications and what would be appropriate for us. Government departments including the Foreign Office were asked to look at options.

'Ascension Island was one of the places they came up with. But the Home Secretary does not think that location is feasible.

'Offshoring is something that was previously proposed by Tony Blair's government.' It is unclear how a Home Office asylum facility could be set up on the Isle of Man, which is self-governing.

Separately, leaked documents marked 'sensitive' revealed that Downing Street asked the Foreign Office to consider processing centres in Morocco, Moldova and Papua New Guinea at the direct suggestion of the Prime Minister.

The three countries were specifically 'floated' by No 10, The Guardian reported. However, the Foreign Office identified a number of diplomatic and practical problems with the plan.

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