Rishi Sunak has refused to say whether Suella Braverman was given legal warnings about blocking the transfer of asylum seekers out of an overcrowded processing centre in Manston.
In a feisty exchange at PMQs, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer asked the prime minister whether the home secretary “received legal advice that she should move people out” of the facility in Kent.
Mr Sunak refused to answer the question, saying: “He knows the government’s policy on commenting on legal advice.”
Sir Keir said: “I think the answer … is yes, he just doesn’t have the guts to say it. He did a grubby deal with her, putting her charge of Britain’s security, just so he could dodge an election.”
The Labour leader also attacked the government’s failure to process asylum claims – saying figures showed that only 4 per cent of people arriving via the English Channel on small boats last year have had their claim processed.
Mr Sunak admitted that “not enough” asylum claims had been processed – but insisted: “That’s what we are going to fix.” He described the small boats crossings as a “serious and escalating problem”.
The prime minister also insisted that he and his controversial home secretary are “on the same page” when it comes to reducing numbers arriving via the English Channel.
Sir Keir Starmer questioned how a “broken” asylum system could be anyone’s fault but the Tories, after Ms Braverman said earlier this week that the asylum system was broken. “Who broke it?” he asked.
“They have lost control of borders,” said the Labour leader. “He stands there and tries to pass the blame. If the asylum system is broken, and his lot have been in power for 12 years, how can it be anyone’s fault but theirs?”
Mr Sunak accused Labour leader of failing to have any answers on the asylum issue. “Border control is a serious and complex plan … you can’t attack a plan if you don’t have a plan,” he told the Commons.
The PM added: “We gave the British people a referendum on Brexit. We delivered Brexit. We ended the free movement of people. That’s our record on migration policy … He opposed it at every turn and it’s not what the British people want.”
Mr Sunak remains under growing pressure over his beleaguered home secretary, who was sacked by former PM Liz Truss over a security breach only six days before being brough back to the Home Office.
Multiple government sources have said that Ms Braverman blocked the transfer of migrants at Manston to hotels during her first spell as home secretary under Ms Truss, according to reports.
She is said to have been warned by officials that she risked breaking the law by keeping migrants at a processing centre near Manston airport in Kent for several weeks when it was only intended to hold people for 24 hours.
Hundreds of migrants are believed to have been moved from Manston on Tuesday. There have been 4,000 people being held at the site designed for around 1,600 people in recent weeks. Some have spent several weeks at the facility designed to hold people for 24 hours.
Former immigration minister Caroline Nokes has warned of “very serious cost implications” for the Home Office if decisions at Manston are found to be unlawful and compensation claims are made.
Andy Baxter of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) warned on Wednesday of the potential for riots at the overcrowded Kent facility experiencing “pressure cooker” conditions.
Earlier, cabinet minister Mark Harper acknowledged that both the French and UK authorities need to do more to tackle the problem of migrants risking their lives to cross the English Channel in small boats.
Meanwhile, new analysis by Labour found that new rules introduced by the Tories in January 2021 have added additional six-month delays to thousands of cases on top of the existing asylum backlog – adding £400m to the cost of the system.
Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, said: “There has been a total collapse in asylum decision making with just half the number of decisions being made, and a big increase in bureaucracy at the same time as there are no return agreements in place.”