The former home secretary Priti Patel had a whiteboard behind her ministerial desk on which she had written out a list of her priorities. For much of her time in office the top three issues were: deal with small boats, cut crime, protect national security.
When she left the cabinet in September, Patel was unable to point to much progress on priority number one and the situation she bequeathed her successor, Suella Braverman, has rapidly disintegrated into chaos.
Within the already beleaguered department, morale this week has plummeted further. “It’s a complete mess,” a Home Office source said. “It feels very depressing because we’ve applied massive resources to thinking about it, talking to the French, launching the Rwanda scheme, trying to set up new accommodation structures. None of it has worked.”
Civil servants say there is now an unworkable tension between how Conservative ministers want Home Office staff to respond to the issue of small boats crossing the Channel, and how officials believe the issue should be handled. Ministers insist that the arrival of small boats must simply be stopped, but Home Office staff say the focus should now be on improving the dysfunctional asylum processing system.
Refugees have undertaken dangerous journeys across the Channel for decades, but since lockdown disrupted lorry and train traffic between France and Britain, the shift to crossing in tiny unseaworthy boats has made a largely hidden phenomenon very hard to ignore.
The stark rise in numbers of people coming by boat, from almost zero in 2018 to nearly 40,000 this year, should be seen against this shift away from people arriving (usually unnoticed and uncounted) by lorry.
It is hard to be sure whether there has been an overall sharp rise in numbers crossing the Channel, or simply a switch from unseen, unregistered arrivals by road (many of whom disappeared into the grey economy) to visible arrivals who come on small boats and are immediately picked up and registered by officials.
The optics of the boats arrival are politically problematic. In a post-Brexit era, when the referendum result was meant to have allowed the government to take back control of its borders, the regular news broadcasts of these repeat landings caused intense alarm within the cabinet.
“In the context of taking back control, you have a very visible hole in the border, and No 10 wants it to stop. They don’t ask the Home Office to manage it, or reduce it – the message is that we must stop it,” a civil servant said. “To the public, it seems inconceivable that we can’t stop it.”
Staff inside the departmental headquarters in Marsham Street in Westminster monitor forecasts and mark the home secretary’s diary as a Home Office Red Day when the weather is set to be fine, with no northerly winds. On these days, the police in France will deploy more officers on the coast between Calais and Dunkirk, the British navy are put on alert, and special advisers turn on the rolling news channels and brace themselves for trouble.
“If it’s a sunny day, and Sky News has got some good pictures, then it all kicks off. The calls start to come in from No 10 asking: ‘What are you guys doing about this?’” a former Home Office adviser said.
The issue sucked up enormous amounts of Patel’s ministerial time and that of cabinet colleagues. The then prime minister, Boris Johnson, launched a taskforce last year that was meant to meet weekly to discuss solutions; the taskforce compiled a 25-point plan with different options, including a column of “magic solutions”, a Home Office source said, most of which involved replicating initiatives adopted – in very different maritime conditions and with debatable success – by Australia. New instalments of money were sent to the French to pay for drones and infrared night goggles and more police.
Under Patel, officials said, the search for small boat solutions was often exhaustingly scattergun. “They thrashed around doing one thing and then another,” a civil servant said. “[Patel] would go to Greece, look at the Greek asylum model, and come back and tell us: ‘Do what Greece has done. Just do all that please.’ And then three weeks later she’d ask: ‘Have you done it yet?’”
Next, officials were instructed to prevent the sale of rubber dinghies in northern France, but discovered that since the boats were often ordered online from manufacturers in China, this was not a simple task. In the summer of 2021, Patel was hoping that a strategy of ordering naval cutters to push the small boats back to France would prove effective. “Thousands of hours’ work went into assessing the legalities. For it to be lawful, it had to be safe, and there was no way it was ever going to be safe,” an official who worked on the strategy said. “We knew the pushbacks policy was doomed from the start.”
This scheme was later replaced with the equally problematic Rwanda initiative, under which the Rwandan government was paid £120m in exchange for allowing Britain to transport an unspecified number of people who have arrived by small boats to have their asylum claims processed in Kigali.
Those whose claims are accepted will be allowed to stay in Rwanda. Although Braverman has said she has a dream of a plane full of asylum seekers taking off for Rwanda, the scheme is currently mired in legal challenges.
“What ministers didn’t want was for officials to say, ‘We’ve got a problem and we’re going to manage it.’ What they wanted officials to say is: ‘We’ve got a problem and we’re going to make it go away. We’re going to stop them coming,’” the source said.
But civil servants working on the issue say that ministers must now accept that there is going to be a stream of arrivals of asylum seekers from northern France, and rather than investing energy in trying to prevent the arrivals, they should focus instead on processing them more efficiently.
The asylum system is set up to handle around 20,000 applications a year, but is currently dealing with double that number annually, and the backlog of unprocessed claims stands at around 120,000. The department has struggled to recruit new case workers, and many are leaving jobs that are seen as stressful and badly paid.
Despite repeated promises in the wake of the Windrush scandal that the Home Office would undergo a complete cultural transformation, and rebuild itself as a more compassionate and fairer institution, there is still a policy of hostility built into the UK’s asylum process. Having a slow, slightly dysfunctional system has been part of a deliberate deterrence strategy aimed at making life hard for asylum seekers.
“We aren’t meant to process cases with alacrity, because that’s going to look soft,” a Home Office source said.
But the delays are bad news for everyone involved. Asylum seekers are not permitted to work or study, so cannot begin rebuilding their lives – or paying taxes – while they wait sometimes more than a year for their case to be decided.
Many of those people waiting for their claims to be processed are accommodated in hotels or hostels at the taxpayers’ expense. The UK is spending almost £7m a day on hotels for asylum as a direct result of this backlog.
The whole structure of the asylum system was designed to be sceptical, and to try to pick holes in the accounts given by applicants in order to reject claims. It is an approach that is ill-suited to the current cohort of arrivals, most of whom come from conflict-riven countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, Iraq and Iran, and most of whom are likely to be granted asylum.
There is no evidence that this hostile approach is deterring people from coming to the UK to claim asylum. Besides, migration experts stress that, despite Braverman’s characterisation of the arrival of migrants as an “invasion on our southern coast”, the numbers coming to the UK are relatively low compared to its EU neighbours. Seventeen EU countries received larger numbers of asylum applications per capita last year, according to an analysis of official figures by the OMO.
Patel acknowledged that news coverage of boats arrivals created unrelenting pressure. Two years ago, a small boats crisis ruined her son’s 11th birthday party, she said, just as it forced her predecessor, Sajid Javid, to abandon his family Christmas holidays in 2018. “The day was completely wrecked because we had some small boats issues,” she told the Telegraph.
The issue now looks set to dominate Braverman’s time in office. The new home secretary should expect to spend much of her ministerial career checking the weather forecast in northern France.