Britain and France have traded diplomatic barbs after the deaths of 27 people who drowned trying to cross the Channel, with Priti Patel, the home secretary, saying it was up to the French to take action to prevent further such tragedies.
As the countries tussled over whether more UK police should be sent to France to try to stop crossings in small boats, Patel’s French counterpart, Gérald Darmanin, blamed the illegal labour market in the UK for attracting people.
Making a statement to MPs after the 17 men, seven women and three adolescents died on Wednesday, Patel said that while there was no rapid solution to the issue of people seeking to make the crossing, she had reiterated an offer to send more police to France.
Answering a question in the Commons, Patel also backed the view of Robert Jenrick, the Tory MP and former communities secretary, who asked: “Would she agree with me that in the short term we will see more tragedies like this unless we can agree a strategy with the French, and it is within the gift of the president of France to bring this to an end now?”
The home secretary replied: “My honourable friend is absolutely right, hence the discussion that took place between the prime minister and President Macron last night.”
It is understood that Boris Johnson, when speaking to Emmanuel Macron after the tragedy on Wednesday, also offered to have more UK officers in northern France, but that the French president was wary about the idea.
The French MP Pierre-Henri Dumont, who represents Calais, said the idea to deploy more UK police was a “crazy” proposal that he said “will not change anything”.
Speaking separately, Darmanin said those on small boats were “often attracted” by the UK’s labour market. “Clearly, immigration is badly managed in Britain,” he told RTL radio. “English employers use this labour to make the things that the English manufacture and consume. We say reform your labour market. Tell English employers that we need them to be as patriotic as the Conservative government.”
Patel and Darmanin spoke on Thursday, and Patel was expected to travel to France on Sunday. UK officials and law enforcement staff were also reportedly heading to France on Thursday evening for talks.
In the Commons, the shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said one part of the solution had to be more safe and legal asylum routes to the UK, calling for the government to bring back the Dubs scheme for resettling lone child refugees in the UK.
Patel replied: “I have actually put an offer on the table, not for the first time, to the French government today, on a returns agreement, but in particular looking at family reunions and children. This is, again, an offer that I have made repeatedly to my counterpart in France.”
It was not immediately clear what scheme Patel was referring to, with Labour saying the party did not know. The Home Office was contacted for clarification.
Answering a later question, Patel said the UK had proposed “a very, very significant technology offer” including automatic number plate recognition on the roads approaching northern French beaches, as well as more UK police, though not officers with the power to make arrests.
“We’ve also offered to put more officers – unwarranted because they will not take warranted officers – but these are the things I will be working through very specifically now because the status quo cannot persist,” Patel said. “I think there’s a full understanding of this on the French side.”
She added: “As we mourn those who have died in the most horrendous circumstances, I hope that the whole house can come together to send a clear message that crossing the Channel in this lethal way, in a small boat, is not the way to come to our country.”