Suella Braverman has insisted she was not to blame for the crisis at Manston refugee centre, as she attempted to shore up her precarious political position by aggressively ramping up her rhetoric over immigration.
The embattled home secretary claimed she had “never blocked” the use of hotels to ease pressure on the asylum processing centre in Kent or ignored legal advice on the matter – despite multiple sources insisting that she had been warned over the conditions.
Senior government sources told the Guardian she had “commissioned” external legal advice because she disagreed with the internal Home Office view that more hotel accommodation should be procured for refugees to address overcrowding.
Braverman, already under fire over the security breach that saw her sacked as home secretary less than a fortnight ago, faced growing pressure over the situation at Manston on Monday. The centre is now housing 4,000 migrants, more than double its capacity, leading to disease and a heightened the risk of unrest.
Tory MP Sir Roger Gale, the local MP, blamed Braverman for the situation. “That facility operated absolutely magnificently and very efficiently indeed until five weeks ago, when I’m afraid the home secretary took the policy decision not to commission further accommodation, and it is that that has led to the crisis at Manston,” he said.
Other Conservative MPs and Whitehall officials were alarmed at the home secretary’s handling of the situation. One minister said: “She’s just not up to the job. She’s only there because Rishi [Sunak] needed her backing to get the leadership. We can’t see her lasting.”
In her first statement to MPs since her re-appointment, Braverman put herself on collision course with her own department, claiming she was “appalled” by some aspects of its response to the Channel migrant crisis and appearing to blame officials for the chaos.
Echoing remarks made by her predecessor, Priti Patel, she claimed the asylum system was “broken” and that illegal immigration was “out of control” despite her own party having been in power for 12 years.
Yet she appeared to take some responsibility for overcrowding at the centre by admitting that she had “refused to prematurely release” people without having somewhere else to stay.
Dramatically escalating her language as she pitched to the right in the fight for her political future, Braverman described the Channel migrant crisis as an “invasion” and reminded MPs that 40,000 people had arrived on the south coast of England this year.
“Let’s be clear about what is really going on here: the British people deserve to know which party is serious about stopping the invasion on our southern coast and which party is not,” she told MPs.
“Let’s stop pretending that they are all refugees in distress. The whole country knows that is not true … We need to be straight with the public.
“The system is broken. Illegal migration is out of control and too many people are interested in playing political parlour games, covering up the truth, than solving the problem.”
Braverman told MPs she had not blocked the use of hotels to ease pressure on Manston – but it was unclear whether that also meant she had not blocked their procurement. “I’ve never ignored legal advice. As a former attorney, I know the importance of taking legal advice into account,” she said.
However, one source told the Guardian: “She was warned time and time again that something had to be done about Manston. Over several weeks.” It is understood that Grant Shapps, who briefly replaced Braverman as home secretary, reversed the policy and booked several hotels as an emergency solution to overcrowding.
Care 4 Calais condemned the home secretary’s language as “incredibly offensive”. They added: “Refugees are escaping from conflicts – they know what being invaded feels like. We are lucky that many of us do not. To suggest they are committing an act of war when that is what they are fleeing is indefensible.”
Charlie Taylor, the chief inspector of prisons, said the Home Office and its contractors must speed up the processing of migrants and make “suitable provisions” so that people can be moved out of Manston as quickly as possible.
A report by the watchdog, released on Tuesday, found that an inspection of the facility in July showed there were already serious challenges for the government department if it was to safely and humanely process asylum seekers.
Manston, a disused airfield near Ramsgate, is supposed to be a short-term housing facility to process migrants who have just arrived in the UK. They are only meant to stay for 24 hours, but the prison watchdog found that there were no beds or access to fresh air or exercise.
Inspectors highlighted “failings” in procedures at Manston that “undermine the resilience of the centre for dealing with increasing volumes of detainees”. They also found that the accommodation was suitable for short-term detention and noted efforts by staff to “create a calm and even welcoming atmosphere”.
Last week, the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, David Neal, said that on a visit to the centre, he had met families who had been at Manston for over a month.
Braverman is also under pressure over her use of her personal email for government business, which led to her first resignation. In a letter to the home affairs committee chair, Diana Johnson, she apologised for her “errors of judgment”.
However, she also revealed that she had sent government documents to her private email six times during her first 44 days stint as home secretary – but claimed none of the emails sent between 6 September and 10 October “concerned national security, intelligence agency or cybersecurity matters”.
Her letter revealed that she did not confess to the leak “as soon as I realised my mistake”, as she had claimed in her resignation letter to Liz Truss. Instead, she admitted that she was alerted to the error at around 10am, but only told her private secretary at 12.56pm.
One government insider said: “She only told the officials after being confronted by the chief whip. No 10 and the Cabinet Office had already been told. The rest is neither here nor there.”