Priti Patel is threatening to launch a formal complaint after Home Office sources made a “categorically untrue” claim that she oversaw a two-month summer “pause” in finding hotel rooms for asylum seekers.
The former home secretary said she was considering writing to the department’s top official after “unfounded” briefings seeking to blame her for decisions made under her successor, Suella Braverman.
The department has been consumed by the unfolding crisis at the Manston processing centre in Kent, which held 4,100 people at its peak, despite having a capacity of 1,600. The troubled site, where people arriving in the UK in small boats are taken for initial checks, has been completely cleared, Home Office sources confirmed on Tuesday.
The row between the former home secretary and her old department comes after two Home Office sources told the Guardian there was a “pause” between mid-June and mid August in the commissioning of hotels for asylum seekers.
The alleged pause – which meant that new accommodation was not signed off to house expected new arrivals in small boats – has been discussed in recent weeks at a “senior level” within the department, the sources said.
The Home Office’s failure to find hotels for asylum seekers has been blamed for leading to illegal conditions at Manston. Sources claim the government is facing at least three judicial reviews from detainees.
Speaking for the first time about her alleged role in the asylum backlog, Patel said any indication that she had breached her statutory obligations by failing to book hotels for asylum seekers was false.
She said: “The department fulfilled its statutory obligations regarding accommodation for asylum seekers in hotels during my time in office. Any indication that I did not is categorically untrue.
“These claims have arisen before from sources within the Home Office. I will consider launching a formal complaint to the permanent secretary if these unfounded claims persist.”
Her threat follows weeks of briefing and counter-briefings from allies of Patel and Braverman over who is to blame for failing to find accommodation for people who crossed the Channel in small boats.
Previously, Whitehall sources have been quoted claiming Patel was responsible for the backlog. This is the first time that sources have identified specific dates during her tenure when hotels were not being found by officials.
Officials fear that taxpayers will be liable for compensation running into tens of millions of pounds after the overcrowding. Braverman is preparing to appear before the home affairs select committee on Wednesday, when she will be questioned over the legality of the detentions – and whether she was to blame for failing to find accommodation.
MPs plan to ask her about reports that she ignored legal advice that asylum seekers were being held for too long and needed to be moved urgently.
Braverman has denied claims in the Sunday Times that she ignored legal advice that the government was illegally detaining thousands of asylum seekers.
It is understood Manston remains open and will continue to be used as needed to carry out initial checks on migrants as more arrive.
There has been a series of controversies at the site including outbreaks of infectious diseases such as diphtheria, the stranding of asylum seekers in central London, and the death of an asylum seeker placed there on Saturday.
The prime minister’s official spokesperson said: “Manston by design is meant to be a temporary holding facility, where people are processed before moving on – normally, fairly quickly.
“Obviously there were immediate challenges, particularly after the attack at the other centre, which caused numbers to spike. So you would expect numbers to be relatively low on a daily basis as people are moved through quickly.”
Asked to comment on claims that Patel had paused the search for hotel rooms for asylum seekers, a Home Office spokesperson said: “The use of hotels to house asylum seekers is unacceptable – there are currently more than 37,000 asylum seekers in hotels costing the UK taxpayer £5.6m a day.
“The use of hotels is a short-term solution and we are working hard with local authorities to find appropriate accommodation.”
More than 42,000 people have arrived in the UK so far this year after crossing the Channel in small boats, according to provisional government figures.