Home secretary Suella Braverman risks inflaming the migration row with plans to force vulnerable child refugees to undergo X-rays to verify their age.
The move comes after Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, told cabinet that he wanted Britain to be a “compassionate, welcoming country”, distancing himself from the home secretary’s controversial claim that the UK was being subjected to an “invasion” by asylum seekers.
As counterterrorist police took charge of the investigation into the firebombing of a separate immigration facility in Kent, it emerged that Ms Braverman’s incendiary remark had not been cleared with No 10. And Mr Sunak’s official spokesperson declined to say whether the PM regarded it as appropriate.
Immigration minister Robert Jenrick said Ms Braverman had been trying to express “the sheer scale of the challenge” but accepted it was necessary to “choose your words very carefully” and said he himself had not used the phrase.
Refugee charity Care4Calais told The Independent the X-ray proposals raised “serious safeguarding concerns”.
The home secretary faced allegations from a senior Conservative MP that she misled parliament when she denied that dangerous overcrowding at a migrant processing centre was caused by her blocking the use of hotels to accommodate people arriving in the UK by small boat.
And another Tory MP said that Ms Braverman’s focus on tough measures to deter Channel crossings would not work, and the Home Office should instead focus its efforts on clearing the massive backlog of legitimate asylum claims.
David Simmonds, who chairs parliament’s all-party group on migration, told The Independent that the most effective way to undermine the activities of people-smuggling gangs would be to set up legal routes for displaced people to come to the UK to have their claims assessed.
Hundreds of people were being moved out of Manston on Tuesday in a bid to ease overcrowding which has seen some asylum seekers spend weeks in a temporary holding centre intended only for swift initial processing over a period of no more than 48 hours.
In a defiant Commons appearance on Monday, Ms Braverman denied claims that she ignored legal advice to procure more hotel accommodation to allow individuals and families to move on from the centre.
With the government spending £6.8m a day putting up migrants in hotels, she insisted she was right to order a review of the way the system was working.
But a source close to Ms Patel said the former home secretary had regularly authorised the use of hotels when capacity at Manston was stretched.
And Tory MP Sir Roger Gale – whose Thanet North constituency includes Manston – told The Independent: “I am absolutely certain that the home secretary put a moratorium on hotel accommodation. That is what has caused this logjam. It was essentially humane and well organised until five weeks ago, then she arrived and it hit the buffers.
“I am absolutely certain that the home secretary misled the House when she said she had not put a block on paying for additional accommodation. I am told there is documentation inside the Home Office which would prove that.”
Sir Roger welcomed measures to ease overcrowding, but added: “Thousands more need to be moved out. She has been using it as a refugee camp, and I am trying to get it back to its proper purpose as a processing centre. There shouldn’t be more than 1,200 people there and they shouldn’t be there for more than 48 hours.”
A Home Office source insisted that allegations the home secretary had misled parliament were “categorically untrue”.
On Monday, Ms Braverman pledged that “robust” new checks will be introduced in the new year to settle disputes over the age of those arriving across the Channel on small boats.
The Home Office told The Independent that she was referring to proposals, floated by predecessor Priti Patel earlier this year, to use scientific methods to uncover adult migrants posing as children in the hope of being allowed to stay in the UK.
An expert panel commissioned by Ms Patel to look into options including X-rays, CT scans and MRI imaging is understood to be nearing the completion of its work.
Hannah Marwood, from Care4Calais, said her organisation had supported hundreds of children who the government had incorrectly taken through what is known as an age dispute and the cases had raised serious safeguarding concerns. “The children we have worked with have been placed in accommodation with adults they do not know, which is a scary situation for any minor to be left in,” she said.
“Age disputes have a real impact on these young people’s mental health. They don’t understand why the government is challenging their age, it causes them great anxiety.”
She added: “The government’s plans for the Home Office to take over the age dispute process and to use methods such as X-rays have already been criticised by experts, including evidence that it will produce inaccurate results causing more harm to young refugees. It’s time the government ditched the rhetoric and adopted a kinder, more compassionate approach to age disputes.”
And Mr Simmonds said that Ms Braverman’s priority should be reducing the giant backlog of asylum claims, with almost 110,000 waiting for decisions in March this year – a 300 per cent rise from 2018.
“Because of a lack of capacity in the Home Office to settle these cases, we are seeing more and more use of hotels, with thousands of asylum seekers in Kent and around Heathrow,” he told The Independent. “Four local authorities have obtained injunctions to prevent the Home Office using hotels in their areas.
“The home secretary and her ministers need to get this sorted out, and quickly. This is the UK in the 21st century, we shouldn’t be seeing children with their families living in tents and sleeping on the ground in Manston. That is not acceptable on a humanitarian basis.
“The capacity of the system is simply not sufficient for the numbers of people – but those numbers are not particularly high. It’s less than half the previous peak and France has double and Germany treble the numbers we do.”
Mr Simmonds said that his discussions with would-be migrants at Calais made clear that the “hostile environment” offered by Britain and the threat of removal for processing in Rwanda was “no deterrent at all”.
Most wanted to reach the UK because of ties with family or friends there, he said. And others believed that Brexit gives them a chance of a “fresh start” in Britain, which is no longer able simply to deport migrants to the first safe EU country they entered.
The home secretary has thrown the spotlight in recent days on Albanian men who have arrived in the UK in ever-growing numbers over recent months.
But Mr Simmonds said that the focus should instead be on swift processing of nationalities like Iranians, Iraqis and Afghans, whose asylum claims are approved in a large majority of cases.
And he said that the only way to reduce perilous Channel crossings in small boats was to allow asylum seekers to make their claims overseas and come to the UK for processing.
“As long as we don’t have a safe and legal route open to people, the people smugglers are going to continue coining it,” he said.
A Home Office source said Ms Braverman and her team were “working flat out” to bring down the backlog of asylum cases. The home secretary told cabinet a “whole-government approach” would be needed to tackle the crisis.