Priti Patel, the home secretary, has said Emmanuel Macron is wrong to say the UK’s immigration policy is encouraging people to risk their lives crossing the Channel from France.
In a further escalation of the row between the two countries, Patel has dismissed claims by the French president that Britain’s immigration system favours clandestine migration and does not allow for asylum seekers to seek legal ways into the country.
Her comments were made at a wide-ranging hearing of the home affairs select committee on Wednesday. She also said that the government was spending £1.2m every day housing asylum seekers in hotels and revealed that she was considering a new law on drink-spiking.
Asked about Macron’s comments, Patel said: “They’re absolutely wrong.”
She added: “The entire French government – both the interior minister and President Macron – are fully aware through the very good work, actually, that our ambassador in Paris and her team does, in terms of number one: the cooperation that we have to have with France to combat the dangerous and unnecessary crossings, dealing with illegal migration, but also working with like-minded partners across Europe. So those comments are just wrong.”
Macron has said he will step up the pressure on Boris Johnson to establish a legal route to Britain for asylum seekers. The president, who is seeking re-election, said current rules encouraged illegal migration and did not allow for asylum seekers to seek lawful ways into the country, pushing people to attempt the treacherous crossing instead.
“The British continue to have a system from the 1980s which manages economic immigration through hypocrisy. There is no legal immigration route,” he said. “The British must articulate their needs in terms of the economy and reopen a path to legal asylum requests. We are going to step up the pressure.”
Tension between the French and UK governments has increased since the sinking of a dinghy in November led to the deaths of 27 people, with both countries placing the blame on the other.
Last month the defence minister James Heappey and senior Royal Navy officers told parliament that naval vessels would not intercept dinghies bringing people through the Dover Strait.
Questioned about Heappey’s statement, Patel said the role of the armed forces had not yet been established and that talks were ongoing between Home Office and Ministry of Defence (MoD) officials.
“The work isn’t complete so it’s totally inappropriate for me to comment on operational planning on what either the navy or Border Force will be doing,” she told MPs.
In a tweet that revealed the ongoing Whitehall tensions over the Royal Navy’s role in the Channel, the MoD press office wrote on Wednesday night: “The Royal Navy and the Royal Marines will not be using pushback tactics in the English Channel, although a military commander will retain the existing ability to instruct Border Force to use them when appropriate. A further update will follow in due course.”
Tricia Hayes, the second permanent secretary at the Home Office, told MPs that £1.2m of public money was being spent every day on housing asylum seekers in hotels.
Patel said the government was “absolutely struggling” to find accommodation for 12,000 people from Afghanistan who remained in hotels after being evacuated last year. About 4,000 have been found permanent homes but the home secretary said officials were “desperately trying” to find alternative housing for the rest.
“We do not have the infrastructure … in terms of housing and accommodation,” she said.
Patel also told the committee that the government was looking into making drink-spiking a specific criminal offence, but she said not to “expect an announcement tomorrow” as there was work to be done to understand the phenomenon and its prevalence.
“I have asked my officials to look into what we know thus far with NPCC [the National Police Chiefs’ Council], how we can pursue offenders, but also how we can – and you’ll know that there are already a list of offences in terms of drugs that can be applied – but how we can prepare a specific criminal offence to target spiking directly,” she said.
Referring to revelations of misogyny, racism and homophobia among officers at Charing Cross police station, Patel said it “shows a failure of leadership in some quarters”.
Patel said she had confidence in the Met commissioner, Cressida Dick, but added: “Whether you’re a sergeant, whether you’re a line manager, whether you’re overseeing the professional development team, whether you’re the direct line manager or anyone in policing, there should be a full understanding of what is right and what is wrong in terms of behaviours.”