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Small Boat Channel Crossings

Volume 707: debated on Monday 17 January 2022

18. What progress she has made on reducing the number of illegal small boat crossings in the channel. (905049)

I would like to begin my remarks this afternoon by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington. He was a member of the shadow Home Affairs team, and he sadly passed away the week before last. Jack was well loved by everyone and a hugely respected Member of this House. Along with all colleagues, I would like to pay my respects to him and send my condolences to Harriet and their family.

These crossings are unfair, unacceptable and lethally dangerous. They are totally unnecessary, as France and other EU member states are safe countries with long-established asylum systems.

I thank the Home Secretary for that reply, and I associate myself wholeheartedly with her remarks about the late member for Birmingham, Erdington.

I know that the Home Secretary has been requesting the assistance of the Royal Navy to reduce the number of illegal channel crossings, and I look forward to seeing growing co-operation between her Department and the Ministry of Defence. Does she agree that it is surely right to deploy all the available resources and tools to shut down the routes used by the cruel people smugglers and to protect lives at sea?

My right hon. Friend’s question is an important one because, as all hon. Members will be well aware, I asked for MOD naval assets and support back in 2020, because no Department can resolve the complex issue of channel crossings on its own. It is also right, having called for MOD involvement, that we now bring the whole machinery of government, the ultimate utility, together to ensure that we work collectively to protect our borders. My right hon. Friend is right about the wider issues on immigration, and that is why we have the new plan for immigration.

I fully echo the Home Secretary’s remarks about the late Member for Birmingham, Erdington. He was well liked and respected by many of us on this side of the House.

Does the Home Secretary recognise the anger felt about this issue, not least by the many people who fully respect this country’s proud tradition of asylum and the tremendous contribution made so many people who have come to this country legally?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why this Government are unapologetic for the fact that we now have the Nationality and Borders Bill and the new plan for immigration. We are operationalising these changes primarily because we need a system that is firm but also fair to those who need genuine help when fleeing persecution and claiming asylum. That is effectively what this Government are doing.

If everyone is agreed that the channel crossings are so dangerous, we must clearly do whatever is necessary to stop them. Surely the quickest way to stop them is simply to turn the boats back and escort them back into French waters. I do not think it would take long for the word to get around that these crossings were futile. Has not the time come to do just that, on humanitarian grounds as well as to protect our borders from illegal immigration?

My hon. Friend will know that that is the policy of this Government. Border Force was commissioned to do this with the MOD, and through the hybrid ways of working that I have commissioned across Government, they will be doing exactly that. Routes have been tested and technology is being used, and the way in which boats can be pushed back has also been well tested, with the basis to do that. That is our policy.

My right hon. Friend is aware that the British people want to see decisive action being taken to reduce the number of small boat crossings in our channel. Does she therefore share my disappointment that the Opposition refused to support our measures to end vexatious and unmerited claims, and chose instead to side with those entering the UK illegally?

We could rerun the debate on the Nationality and Borders Bill, which I would happily do. This Government are determined not just to reform what is a broken asylum system—we are lifting up every aspect of the dysfunctionality of the system—but to tackle the root causes of illegal migration. In March 2021 the new plan for immigration was published, and we had the Nationality and Borders Bill in this House last autumn. The Opposition seem to be on the wrong side of the argument. They do not really want to support an end to illegal migration or stop the people smugglers.

Is there any truth in the reports that the Government want to have asylum seekers processed offshore in countries such as Gambia? Has any such country actually agreed to this? Does the Secretary of State accept that having people processed hundreds or thousands of miles away might meet the letter of our obligations to asylum seekers but certainly does not meet the spirit?

I absolutely disagree with the right hon. Lady’s question. Had she read the new plan for immigration—the policy statement published for the benefit of all Members in March 2021—she would know that this Government are considering all options for outsourcing processing and for removing people with no legal basis to be in our country. I completely recognise that she disagrees with the policies of this Government—[Interruption.] It matters not which countries. We will continue to discuss this with a range of countries, because I, as Home Secretary, and this Government are determined to fix the decades-long problem of a very broken asylum system. Frankly, under successive Labour Governments there were mass failures to remove people with no legal basis to be in the country.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I join the Home Secretary in paying tribute to our dear friend and colleague, Jack Dromey. We very much look forward to the tributes later this month. Especially today, at Home Office questions, we very much miss his kindness, his passion and his wit alongside us on the Front Bench.

We hear that responsibility for ending dangerous crossings of the channel is to be taken away from the Home Office and handed to the MOD, but we have been here before. In 2019 the Government brought in the Navy to patrol the channel, and those patrols ended after just six weeks, having cost £780,000 and without a single boat having been intercepted. Can the Home Secretary explain how today’s proposal will be any different from 2019 and prevent lives from being lost at sea?

Of course I can. I restate what I have said in the House many times about the hybrid approach we need: no one Department can solve this issue in the channel on its own. Let us be crystal clear about this. I originally commissioned the military aid to the civil authorities request that went to the Ministry of Defence very early on, back in 2020. Of course my decision to bring in the MOD is vindication of our need to strengthen our defences in the channel.

This is about a number of things—[Interruption.] I can hear Opposition Members making noise about this issue. However, the reality is that we want to stop illegal crossings. People are dying in the channel and in the Mediterranean. All aspects of pushbacks and turn-backs—of the approach we take in the channel—are operational. This has been tested, there is a basis on which to do it, and individuals are trained. The MOD, maritime policing and Border Force originally came together, and they will continue to work together. This is, first, a global migration issue but, secondly, the British public will support the Government in doing everything possible to protect our borders. That is why a blended approach is absolutely vital.

I wholeheartedly endorse the Home Secretary’s comments about the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington.

The Home Secretary should have pointed out that, unlike the endless Downing Street parties, arriving in the UK to claim asylum is not unlawful, as the Court of Appeal reminded her just last month. It is only her atrocious anti-refugee Bill that will see Afghans, Syrians and Uyghurs arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for up to four years. Why does she see relentless flouting of lockdown rules as forgivable for the Prime Minister but seeking safety here from Assad, the Taliban or genocide as worth four years in prison?

I always enjoy the hon. Gentleman’s contributions. As we saw on Report and Third Reading of the Nationality and Borders Bill, the Scottish National party choose to deploy political gimmicks—I am being kind to the SNP—to frustrate the will of the public when it comes to reforming asylum and illegal migration. It is fair to say that the Conservative party in government, through the Nationality and Borders Bill and the new plan for immigration, will do everything possible to tackle the unscrupulous exploitation of people who cross illegally and will provide sanctuary to those who need our help and support—those fleeing persecution who need refuge. Frankly, when local authorities in Scotland are not even helping to accommodate these people, I take no lectures from the Scottish National party.

That answer was about as convincing as the Prime Minister’s apology. The Home Secretary has quite a nerve to talk about political gimmicks, given that she is the first person to be sent out to the Dispatch Box to further Operation Red Meat; the proposals leaked out over the weekend have absolutely nothing to do with saving lives and everything to do with saving the Prime Minister’s career and her political career. The Home Secretary sending in the Royal Navy against small boats full of refugees and asylum seekers is pathetic, inhumane and an abuse of the Royal Navy, and her grubby shopping around for places to offshore asylum seekers to is an outrageous and dangerous big white elephant. Instead of ripping up the refugee convention and locking up refugees, why does the Home Office not start working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and others to live up to our humanitarian obligations?

The hon. Gentleman needs to understand global migration challenges and the international exploitation of human lives and human beings that takes place, because clearly he has no recommendations or answers. His local authorities across Scotland refuse to house people who have come to our country. Frankly, I will take no lectures from him. He can carry on with his political gimmicks, but the Scottish National party’s lack of policy says a great deal.