The home secretary has repeatedly refused to answer questions on the legal advice she was given over the Manston migrant processing facility, as she accepted the Home Office has ‘failed to control our borders’.
Appearing before parliament’s Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Suella Braverman was asked seven times about when she was told the Home Office was “breaching the law” by detaining people there for too long.
Five legal challenges have so far been launched alleging unlawful detention at the former military base, which was holding more than 4,000 asylum seekers in tents last month.
The home secretary said she was “fully aware there was a crisis” when she first arrived in the post when Liz Truss became prime minister in September.
She said it was “becoming incredibly difficult to source accommodation” for asylum seekers to be moved into after leaving Manston.
When committee chair Dame Diana Johnson pressed Ms Braverman on when she was told that people were being unlawfully detained, she said she was aware of an “acute need to source accommodation urgently”.
The home secretary said she could not disclose the content of government legal advice but added: “In every decision I have made, I have always taken legal advice into account … if you’re suggesting I ignored legal advice that is not true.”
Home Office officials have admitted that people should only have been held at Manston for 24 hours, without a legal extension for a maximum of five days in “exceptional circumstances”.
Dan O’Mahoney, the Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, said the lack of onward accommodation had been used as “exceptional circumstances” to make extensions, but a watchdog previously said some families had been at Manston for a month.
Ms Braverman refused to comment on questions over leaked documents appearing to show dates in September and October where she was advised of a “very high risk” of breaching the law, that the Home Office had no power to detain people because of a lack of accommodation and there was “no respectable legal argument” to defend the situation.
The home secretary said she had a “legal duty” to ensure that asylum seekers were not left destitute, and could not make them homeless after leaving Manston.
Matthew Rycroft, the Home Office permanent secretary, told the committee that Ms Braverman had been “made aware of the legal position as well as policy options [for Manston] from the beginning of her tenure”.
What are the problems facing Manston immigration centre?
Asked whether the same legal advice was given to Grant Shapps, who moved swiftly to procure more hotels during his brief stint as home secretary, Mr Rycroft said the advice had been “consistent” and added: “The law didn’t change, some circumstances would have changed meaning updated legal advice was needed, but the essence of the legal advice didn’t change.”
Ms Braverman blamed asylum seekers for the situation at Manston, saying it was not “helpful to point the finger of fault” at the government and adding: “We are responding to a problem caused by other people.”
She called the number of small boat crossings “unprecedented”, despite the fact figures are running below the Home Office’s internal prediction of 65,000 arrivals in 2022.
The Manston processing centre is currently empty, but Ms Braverman admitted that it was because of “zero inflow” in recent days following bad weather in the Channel.
Conservative MP Tim Loughton told the home secretary there was a “shortage of safe and legal routes” available to avoid the need for small boat crossings.
He asked what options were open to asylum seekers outside the “specific groups of people”, such as Afghans and Ukrainians, who are subject to bespoke schemes.
Mr Loughton posed the hypothetical situation of a 16-year-old orphan fleeing war and persecution in an African country, who had a sibling legally living in the UK.
“If you are able to get to the UK you would be able to put in your application for asylum,” Ms Braverman said.
When asked how he would reach the UK if he did not have the means or documents to board a flight, the home secretary did not respond and asked Home Office officials on the panel to answer instead.
Mr Rycroft said a person “could engage” with the UN Refugee Agency to try to obtain leave to enter the UK, but that was not possible in all countries.
Under British law, people must be physically present in the country to claim asylum but there is no visa for reaching the UK for that purpose.
The latest official figures show that 93 per cent of people making small boat crossings so far this year have claimed asylum.
Tory MP Lee Anderson put it to her that: “We’re putting more (asylum seekers) in hotels because the Home Office has failed to control our borders and it’s not fit for purpose at the moment.”
She replied: “We have failed to control our borders, yes. That’s why the Prime Minister and myself are absolutely determined to fix this problem.”
The Rwanda deal seeks to force people to the East African country without considering their claims, because they have travelled through France or other safe countries.
Ms Braverman, who previously said it was her “dream” to see a plane take off for Kigali, told the committee she was “very confident we will be able to operationalise it” despite ongoing legal challenges.
Priti Patel made a rare ministerial direction to force the policy through earlier this year, after Mr Rycroft concluded that there was no proof of value for public money.
He said his assessment had not changed on Tuesday, and confirmed that the government had already given Rwanda £140m.