Skip to main content

Western Jet Foil and Manston Asylum Processing Centres

Volume 825: debated on Tuesday 1 November 2022


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 31 October.

“With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about asylum processing at Manston and the incident in Dover yesterday.

At around 11.20 am on Sunday, police were called to Western Jet Foil. Officers established that two to three incendiary devices had been thrown at the Home Office premises. The suspect was identified, quickly located at a nearby petrol station, and confirmed dead. The explosive ordnance disposal unit attended to ensure there were no further threats. Kent police are not currently treating this as a terrorist incident. Fortunately, there were only two minor injuries, but it is a shocking incident and my thoughts are with all those affected.

I have received regular updates from the police. Although I understand the desire for answers, investigators must have the necessary space to work. I know the whole House will join me in paying tribute to everyone involved in the response, including the emergency services, the military, Border Force, immigration enforcement, and the asylum intake unit.

My priority remains the safety and well-being of our teams and contractors, as well as the people in our care. Several hundred migrants were relocated to Manston yesterday to ensure their safety. Western Jet Foil is now fully operational again. I can also inform the House that the Minister for Immigration, my right honourable friend the Member for Newark, Robert Jenrick, visited the Manston site yesterday and that I will visit shortly. My right honourable friend was reassured by the dedication of staff as they work to make the site safe and secure while suitable onward accommodation is found.

As Members will be aware, we need to meet our statutory duties around detention, and fulfil legal duties to provide accommodation for those who would otherwise be destitute. We also have a duty to the wider public to ensure that anyone who has entered our country illegally undergoes essential security checks and is not, with no fixed abode, immediately free to wander around local communities.

When we face so many arrivals so quickly, it is practically impossible to procure more than 1,000 beds at short notice. Consequently, we have recently expanded the site and are working tirelessly to improve facilities. There are, of course, competing and heavy demands for housing stock, including for Ukrainians and Afghans, and for social housing. We are negotiating with accommodation providers. I continue to look at all available options to overcome the challenges we face with supply. This is an urgent matter, which I will continue to oversee personally.

I turn to our immigration and asylum system more widely. Let me be clear: this is a global migration crisis. We have seen an unprecedented number of attempts to illegally cross the channel in small boats. Some 40,000 people have crossed this year alone—more than double the number of arrivals by the same point last year. Not only is this unnecessary, because many people have come from another safe country, but it is lethally dangerous. We must stop it.

It is vital that we dismantle the international crime gangs behind this phenomenon. Co-operation with the French has stopped more than 29,000 illegal crossings since the start of the year—twice as many as last year—and destroyed over 1,000 boats. Our UK-France joint intelligence cell has dismantled 55 organised crime groups since it was established in 2020. The National Crime Agency is at the forefront of this fight. Indeed, NCA officers recently joined what is believed to be the biggest ever international operation targeting smuggling networks.

This year has seen a surge in the number of Albanian arrivals, many of them, I am afraid to say, abusing our modern slavery laws. We are working to ensure that Albanian cases are processed and that individuals are removed as swiftly as possible—sometimes within days.

The Rwanda partnership will further disrupt the business model of the smuggling gangs and deter migrants from putting their lives at risk. I am committed to making that partnership work. Labour wants to cancel it. Although we will continue to support the vulnerable via safe and legal routes, people coming here illegally from safe countries are not welcome and should not expect to stay. Where it is necessary to change the law, we will not hesitate to do so.

I share the sentiment that has been expressed by Members from across the House who want to see cases in the UK dealt with swiftly. Our asylum transformation programme will help bring down the backlog. It is already having an impact. A pilot in Leeds reduced interview times by over a third and has seen productivity almost double. We are also determined to address the wholly unacceptable situation which has left taxpayers with a bill of £6.8 million a day for hotel accommodation.

Let me set out to the House the situation that I found at the Home Office when I arrived as Home Secretary in September. I was appalled to learn that there were more than 35,000 migrants staying in hotel accommodation around the country, at exorbitant cost to the taxpayer. I instigated an urgent review. I pushed officials to identify accommodation options that would be more cost-effective and delivered swiftly while meeting our legal obligation to migrants. I have held regular operational meetings with front-line officials and have been energetically seeking alternative sites, but I have to be honest: this takes time and there are many hurdles.

I foresaw the concerns at Manston in September and deployed additional resource and personnel to deliver a rapid increase in emergency accommodation. To be clear, like the majority of the British people, I am very concerned about hotels, but I have never blocked their usage. Indeed, since I took over, 12,000 people have arrived, 9,500 people have been transferred out of Manston or Western Jet Foil, many of them into hotels, and I have never ignored legal advice. As a former Attorney-General, I know the importance of taking legal advice into account. At every point, I have worked hard to find alternative accommodation to relieve the pressure at Manston.

What I have refused to do is to prematurely release thousands of people into local communities without having anywhere for them to stay. That is not just the wrong thing to do—that would be the worst thing to do for the local community in Kent, for the safety of those under our care and for the integrity of our borders. The Government are resolute in our determination to make illegal entry to the UK unviable. It is unnecessary, lethally dangerous, unfair on migrants who play by the rules and unfair on the law-abiding patriotic majority of British people. It is also ruinously expensive and it makes all of us less safe.

As Home Secretary, I have a plan to bring about the change that is so urgently needed to deliver an immigration system that works in the interests of the British people. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to his place—I will do so more formally when there is more time. Actions taken by the Home Secretary over the past eight weeks, with the exception of the six-day resignation period, have raised legitimate and serious concerns over national security, public safety and operational decision-making. I know that the whole House will join me in condemning, in the strongest possible terms, the appalling attack on the Western Jet Foil centre. Our thoughts are with all those affected and we pay tribute to the emergency services. Can the Minister confirm that counterterrorism police are now leading this investigation?

Conditions at Manston were described by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration as a “really dangerous situation” that had left him “speechless”. The local Conservative MP, Sir Roger Gale, said the situation was “wholly unacceptable” and should never have been allowed to develop. He pointed out in no uncertain terms that the deterioration of the site had occurred recently and at speed over weeks during the tenure of the current Home Secretary. Indeed, he said on Times Radio today:

“I don’t accept or trust this Home Secretary’s word.”

What does the Minister say to that?

Can the Minister confirm to this House whether the Home Secretary was given advice from officials on the legality of detaining people at the Manston site due to a failure to provide alternative accommodation? How much alternative accommodation was signed off by the now-former Home Secretary Grant Shapps MP during his week in office, and had those options previously been refused by the current Home Secretary? Can the Minister confirm how many cases of diphtheria and scabies have been recorded at the site? What risk assessment has been done on current working conditions and safeguarding issues at the site? Are people still being held illegally at Manston?

Behind the problems at Manston is a serious and deep-running failure of policy and operational performance. Can the Minister confirm that the average waiting time for an initial asylum decision is now over 400 days? The number of decisions taken each year has slowed to the point of collapse. In frankly astonishing evidence given last week, the Home Affairs Select Committee heard that only 4% of small boat arrivals from last year have been processed. An immense backlog and a failure to deliver on the basics leads to problems, including overcrowding, increasing costs to the taxpayer and serious safeguarding issues. What effective action is the Minister able to point to that has been taken to tackle this growing problem? The Nationality and Borders Act introduced further layers of bureaucracy and delay, including an inadmissibility clause that delays cases for months and requirements for some asylum seekers’ decisions to be repeatedly revisited.

On Rwanda, we are now aware that the Government have paid a further £20 million on top of the already disclosed £120 million for a policy that the Home Office was unable to sign off as being value for money. Does the Minister not agree that concerted action to tackle vile, criminal gangs starts much closer to home? Will the Government now fund a dedicated National Crime Agency unit?

On ministerial accountability, is it still the case that the Home Secretary has not yet visited Manston? The chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee has also pointed out that a Home Secretary has not appeared before the committee since February, despite there having been three different Home Secretaries in that time, one of whom was appointed twice. While we discuss these incredibly serious policy and operational issues, questions remain over the Home Secretary’s conduct regarding the sharing of sensitive information. Will there now be an investigation into whether similar actions occurred during her tenure as Attorney-General?

What are the Government doing to expand safe routes for those fleeing unimaginable situations? If a woman is forced to flee from Iran in the coming weeks, after taking part in current protests, and turns to the UK for help, what specific safe and legal route is open to her?

Finally, while answering this Statement yesterday in the House of Commons, the Home Secretary used language that many of her own colleagues considered ill-advised and inflammatory when she spoke of an “invasion”. That is not the language of a Home Secretary considering national security and public safety the day after a dangerous bomb attack. I would like to know whether the Minister agrees with his ministerial colleague, who said this morning:

“In a job like mine, you have to choose your words very carefully. And I would never demonise people coming to this country in pursuit of a better life.”

The whole situation is a shambles, with terrible consequences for people, and it is about time the Government sorted it out.

I welcome the Minister to his Front-Bench place. Whatever way you look at the appalling conditions at the Manston processing site, with overcrowding, disease and disorder, the conclusion is that it is the fault of this Government, whether because of the woeful track record in processing asylum claims or the alleged failure to commission accommodation from which asylum seekers can be moved on from Manston. That, coupled with the reckless rhetoric used by the Home Secretary and the Government towards asylum seekers, fuels a false narrative that results in the kind of attack that we saw at Western Jet Foil, which is now being treated as a terrorist incident.

Asylum claims in the UK are almost half what they were 20 years ago: over 80,000 asylum claims were made in 2002, and just over 40,000 in 2021. There is currently a 20-week wait just to register an asylum claim and, on average, over 400 days before an initial decision is made. At the end of March, 89,000 cases were awaiting an initial decision, which is quadruple the number in 2016.

The local MP alleged on the “Today” programme on Monday that the overcrowding at Manston was deliberate, as the Home Office had decided not to book more hotel rooms to accommodate asylum seekers. Sir Roger Gale MP today repeated his claim that it was a failure of the Home Office to commission move-on accommodation, despite what the Home Secretary said yesterday in the other place. Can the Minister confirm who is telling the truth?

Yesterday, the Telegraph quoted a Minister who said that Suella Braverman blocked the use of hotel rooms for migrants to “process them quickly”. Mark Spencer MP, the Farming Minister, when asked about the report that Ms Braverman had “put the block” on hotel rooms being used for those arriving on British shores, told Sky News that it was

“because she wants to process them quickly”.

We have the local MP and the Farming Minister both saying that Ms Braverman had put a block on hotel rooms, while the Home Secretary herself said that she had not. Who out of those Government Ministers, senior Conservative MPs and the Home Secretary is telling the truth?

The overwhelming majority of those who have been crossing the Channel in small boats in recent years have been genuine asylum seekers—not because I say so but because the overwhelming majority have been granted asylum status by the Home Office. So why is the Home Office calling those genuine refugees “illegal migrants”, when clearly they are not? Even the Home Office website, announcing the Manston facility, describes it as a

“processing site for illegal migrants”.

That was in December 2021, even before the Nationality and Borders Act. Meanwhile, an Ipsos MORI poll says that only 10% of British people think that immigration is the number one problem facing the UK.

Yesterday, we had the Home Secretary describe those crossing the Channel in small boats as an “invasion”. Not only is that outrageously dangerous rhetoric, particularly when the world is dealing with the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, but this morning we had the Immigration Minister saying that politicians had to be careful in the words they used. Which Minister does the noble Lord agree with—the Immigration Minister or the Home Secretary?

The Conservative Party has had seven years in government when it has been in sole control of our borders. As the Home Secretary herself has said, the asylum system in the UK is broken. Does not the Minister agree that seven years is more than long enough to repair any broken system, and therefore it is time that this Government made way for a Government who can mend it?

Thank you, my Lords. I shall deal first with the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. In relation to the attack on Western Jet Foil, I can confirm that Counter Terrorism Policing South East has now taken the lead from Kent Police in investigating the incident. Detectives have worked hard to establish the exact circumstances, including the motivation surrounding this incident, which happened at 10.20 am on Sunday. During the incident, as noble Lords will know, a number of crude incendiary devices were thrown outside Western Jet Foil and into the premises by a man who arrived at the scene alone in a car. The suspect’s vehicle was quickly located nearby, and the man was found dead inside; he has since been identified as Andrew Leak, aged 66, from High Wycombe.

What appears clear is that this despicable offence was targeted and likely to be driven by some form of hate-filled grievance, although this may not necessarily meet the threshold of terrorism. At this point, the incident has not been declared a terrorist incident, but it is being kept under review as the investigation progresses. A search warrant was carried out at the property at High Wycombe on Monday 31 October, and a number of items of interest were recovered, including digital media devices, which are being examined as quickly as possible.

Due to the nature of the evidence gathered so far, it is clear that officers with specialist knowledge, resources and experiences are best placed to lead this work to determine the motivating factors. There is nothing currently to suggest that the man involved was working alongside anyone else and there is not believed to be any wider threat to the community in the High Wycombe area or in Dover. Detective Chief Superintendent Olly Wright, head of the CTPSE, said:

“This was a traumatic incident for everyone involved, and the wider community and we’re working hard to establish what led to the events on Sunday morning.”

It is right to give space for these investigations to reach their conclusion and it would be inappropriate to second-guess any conclusions at this stage. I echo the thanks given yesterday in the other place for the work of Border Force and the first responders to this appalling incident.

I turn to the second question raised by the noble Lord, about conditions at Manston today. There were 3,629 people at Manston as of this morning. There were no arrivals today, due to the weather in the channel, and conditions are stable and improved routinely, as the Home Secretary set out in the other place in her Statement. Some 332 migrants were rehoused in alternative accommodation today and it is hoped that further transfers will be possible during the course of the week. I can confirm in relation to the other question that the noble Lord asked me, about the health of the people detained at Manston, that there were four cases of diphtheria. Those people have been treated and cases of various skin conditions have also been addressed. The healthcare provided at Manston is first class and, indeed, for many of the people detained at Manston, it is the first time they have had medical intervention for a very long time. The conditions being identified are ones that have clearly been prevalent prior to their crossing the channel, and it is excellent that the medical staff at Manston are able to provide that care for those people.

On the question of waiting times for asylum processing, it is correct that, as the Home Secretary said in the other place yesterday, this system is approaching its breaking point and needs some serious intervention. That is precisely what this Government will do. The cause of this is the unprecedented number of illegal crossings of the channel to the United Kingdom, which has put a system designed for many fewer migrants under extreme pressure. The staff of Border Force and of the Home Office more generally are working at pace to secure a resolution to these asylum claims and to expedite the conclusions of their applications.

The noble Lord asked me whether we need to consider other options. I am, of course, happy to confirm that co-operation with the French is key to addressing this issue. Already since the start of the year, co-operation with the French has stopped more than 29,000 illegal crossings, and joint work with France continues. An important aspect of our response to illegal migration is with the French doubling the numbers patrolling the beaches. That work and certain negotiations with France will continue in an attempt to reduce the numbers crossing the channel, particularly during these very dangerous winter months.

My Lords, I too welcome my noble friend to his responsibilities. Does he recognise the inconvenient truth that it is almost impossible—perhaps entirely so—to deal with this issue without agreement with France going far beyond the level of co-operation to which he referred? Will he draw the attention of his ministerial colleagues to the agreement reached with France in 1995, under which it agreed to take back those who illegally entered the United Kingdom from France—they enter illegally, even if they subsequently claim asylum—and which it honoured?

I thank the noble Lord for reminding me and my department of that very valuable agreement. Certainly, the best solution to this problem would be an agreement with France under which it accepted the return of everyone who crosses the channel. There could be no stronger deterrent to crossing it. I will of course encourage officials to look at the agreement made in 1995 and see what steps can be taken to revive it.

My Lords, initiation rites are pretty tough in some cultures, but none the less I too welcome the Minister to his place. I declare an interest as a fellow member of 39 Essex Chambers, where lawyers act for and against the Government without demonising each other. Of course, the demonisation of their most vulnerable clients is worse. Did the Minister see the comments by the very well-respected charity, HOPE not hate? Its policy director said:

“The terrible incident at Dover does not stand in isolation. It is the result of repeated demonisation … of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees by the government and by the media.”

As an excellent lawyer, the Minister will know that, by definition, because of the non-penalisation doctrine in the refugee convention, a crossing that eventually results in refugee status was never an illegal crossing. Finally, does the Minister agree that it is not helpful or appropriate to refer to the current refugee crisis as an “invasion” of our south coast?

I thank the noble Baroness for her kind remarks. She is right to observe that we have that common interest in terms of our professional origins. I imagine her question relates to the question posed in perhaps more clear terms by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, about the use of the word “invasion” by the Home Secretary. I take the view that the expression the Home Secretary used was intended to—and did—convey the scale and challenge we face as a country from the numbers crossing the channel. Millions of people across this country are rightly concerned about that and want to know that we have a robust but secure asylum system. A significant proportion of those arriving on our shores are economic migrants, many from countries such as Albania. A quarter of all migrants this year came from Albania, which is demonstrably a safe country. The Home Secretary and the entire ministerial team will see what they can do to bear down on those numbers.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The Statement says that 12,000 people have arrived at both Manston and Western Jet Foil since Ms Braverman became Home Secretary in September, and 9,500 have already been transferred out. As the Minister mentioned, there have been confirmed cases of diphtheria and other infectious diseases at the very overcrowded Manston centre in the last month. Diphtheria is a notifiable disease under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, and directors of public health and their local authorities have statutory duties to manage notifiable disease outbreaks, including tracking, testing and tracing not just those with the disease but their contacts. Can the Minister explain why the Home Office has refused to work directly with directors of public health and their local authorities in the areas receiving these asylum seekers from Manston, despite repeated requests?

I thank the noble Baroness for that question. I do not have the answer, so I will find out what it is and write to her.

My Lords, those of us who have had the misfortune to be an MP representing a detention centre will know that the detention estate has had failings for many years. One of those is that the appeals rate has rested at about 42% against the Government for many years; it was that last year as well. Does the Minister not think that, if the Government were able to make the right decisions on asylum requests in the first place, we would have fewer people in the detention estate and would be making quicker decisions?

I thank my noble friend for her question. Clearly, the process for considering asylum decisions needs improvement—that is something we are committed to—and the appeal rate clearly reflects some mistaken decision-making. However, it is right to say that certain cases on appeal will consider matters that were not before the original decision-maker, so those cases do not reflect a particular error. The statistic itself does not suggest entirely a situation which is indicative of flawed decision-making by Home Office officials. However, as I say, this is an area on which we shall work.

My Lords, I too welcome the Minister—notwithstanding the fact that he is a lawyer—because he went to a Scottish university, so he must be okay. However, he must appreciate that in 12 years of a Tory Government we have had a lot of rhetoric and promises but very little practical action, except for gimmicks such as the flights to Rwanda that have never taken place. Everything seems to be done to appease Nigel Farage and his cohort, unfortunately, and the awful racists who surround him. To ask the Minister a specific question, he said that he could not have anticipated the huge influx of immigrants, refugees and migrants across the channel. Why not? Why could it not have been anticipated? What are the Government doing now to anticipate what will happen in the future? The Immigration Minister, Robert Jenrick, said on the radio this morning that he expected the figure would be 50,000 by the end of the year. How does he know that? What are the Government doing to try to mitigate that and reduce the numbers?

The answer to that, as the noble Lord well knows, is to try to produce policies which deter people from seeking to attempt the dangerous channel crossing. That is precisely why we have entered into this agreement with the Government of Rwanda: to seek to disincentivise people from crossing the channel.

The noble Lord says from a sedentary position that it is not working; the point is that it has not had the chance to work because of the prevailing legal challenge. Once the barriers to the policy are removed and it starts to work, we will see the number of people attempting to cross the channel dropping.

I add my welcome to the Minister. On the issue of disincentives, there has been speculation that the conditions at Manston are being kept deliberately bad as a disincentive. Could the Minister be categorical that the Government would never do that on ethical grounds, and that they recognise that that would not prove an adequate disincentive in any case?

My Lords, we have heard about the conditions suffered by people held in these establishments. I cannot help thinking that life must be very difficult for the staff who work there. I imagine that all their instincts are to do their very best by those who are detained or who are there under any other category. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell the House what support is being given to staff to cope with this situation.

Quite separately, in his response to the question about the appeal rate, making the point that issues come up on appeal that had not been considered in the initial application, would he not agree that that may be indicative of a failure of the casework, a lack of curiosity and a failure to raise the right questions?

I thank the noble Baroness for the question. I entirely share her concern for the staff at Manston and Western Jet Foil who have to work in difficult conditions. I have made a point of ensuring that officials are fully alive to these issues. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, suggested that the Home Secretary had yet to visit Manston. As I understand it, she is going to visit later this week, and I can reassure the House that I am visiting next week. I have absolutely no doubt that, on all of those visits, the present concerns of the staff will be taken into account.

As I understood it, the noble Baroness’s question in relation to appeals effectively asked whether this showed a failure by decision-makers to take into account matters which had come to light later. That is not routinely the case. Usually what happens is that a fresh claim is advanced by the applicant and/or there is a fresh set of facts; for example, the development of a subsequent relationship.

My Lords, we have seen over the last couple of days what seems to me to be an almost obsessional pursuit of the Home Secretary, who is dealing with a series of extremely difficult, substantive problems. It is a pursuit on the basis of leaks, anonymous briefings and the usual oversensitivity about words—though if we are going to be sensitive about words, I suggest that “racist” is one that should not be used without a degree of caution. Does the Minister condemn this practice of leaking against a sitting Minister? Does he agree that what the British people want the Home Secretary and the department to do is get on with solving the substantive problem, which means making the country less attractive to illegal migrants, looking at the international legal framework in which we are operating and improving the performance of his department?

I absolutely agree with my noble friend. It is very important that the Home Secretary is able, without unnecessary distraction, to get on with the job of resolving this very difficult situation. I am very grateful to my noble friend for the support he has expressed for the Home Secretary. I am sure that this issue will be front and centre of all her decision-making.

My Lords, what we have seen reported in the media is shocking—diphtheria, scabies and horrific conditions at the site. The Government have been in power for 12 years and we have had about seven Home Secretaries. What is going to happen next? It is not as though this is a new problem. The Government have had many years to solve it. Repeated Bills and Acts of Parliament, meetings with the French and all sorts of things have been going on, but here we are and the problem is getting worse and worse. I am sure that the noble Lord is shocked by that as well. What is going to happen now to make things better? The Government have had a very long time to sort this out.

As the noble Lord will recall, when Sajid Javid was the Home Secretary, only some five years ago, the number of people crossing in small boats was only 200. The problem has become significantly worsened by the success of Border Force in closing off other methods of illegal entry. That perhaps puts in context the fact that we now anticipate 40,000 people crossing the channel—that is half the size of the British Army. This is a problem of great seriousness which requires a reaction that needs to be commensurate with the problem we are now facing.