Lizzie Dearden and Adam Forrest
Wed, 8 March 2023 at 4:44 pm GMT
Suella Braverman and Rishi Sunak are on a collision course with civil servants over their controversial small boats plan.
The home secretary has been condemned for a statement sent in her name to Tory members claiming that officials implementing her policies are part of an “activist blob” that blocked previous attempts to stop the crossings.
It comes as Home Office staff told The Independent that her plans are mere “empty threats” and will not work.
And former Tory refugee minister Lord Harrington told The Independent that the Sunak government must create new safe and legal routes for people fleeing persecution if it wants to claim the “moral high ground”.
A union representing senior civil servants said Ms Braverman’s “cowardly attack” on their integrity, in an email to Conservatives following the announcement of the Illegal Migration Bill, must be urgently withdrawn.
No 10 later said that although the email was signed by Ms Braverman, she “did not see, sign off or sanction” it. Mr Sunak’s press secretary said there had been “operational issues” around the message and directed questions to Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ).
There has been widespread unrest inside the Home Office over Ms Braverman’s admission that the bill may violate human rights, and the UN Refugee Agency’s warning that the plans are a “clear breach” of international law.
Practical questions are mounting over how all small boat migrants could be detained and deported when there is insufficient immigration detention capacity and only two removal agreements in place with Rwanda and Albania.
The Independent has seen internal communications from Home Office leaders telling civil servants they should work to make the bill “a success”, but admitting that details of how it will be operationalised have not yet been “worked through”.
An all-staff meeting is being held next week to discuss the legislation, which blindsided specialist staff who had not been consulted on the plans.
Civil servants have already been piling into internal chats with questions on how the proposals can be implemented and whether they break the law.
Messages from a question and answer session, obtained by journalist Sam Freedman, showed staff calling for their managers to “stand up” for civil servants and threatening to quit.
“At what point are senior leadership in the Home Office willing to state that breaking international law is not consistent with the civil service code or our values, and that we as staff should not be expected to do so?” one person wrote.
Another commenter said: “I have never been so embarrassed and ashamed to work for this department I once loved. Time to move on!”
Several questioned how asylum can be legally denied to small boat migrants and what “safe and legal routes” the government is providing as an alternative. “The home secretary seems to freeze and struggle whenever she’s asked this question,” an anonymous poster remarked.
A Home Office official told The Independent the asylum system had not been overwhelmed by small boat crossings, as claimed by Ms Braverman, but “because of how it is run” amid “widespread incompetence”.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, they said that asylum seekers cannot be forced back to the country they fled under international law.
“Once you’ve saturated Rwanda, where do you send them?” they asked. “It all works for Albanians but what about the rest? It’s empty threats.”
ï»¿In a message to all Home Office staff after the bill was announced on Tuesday, permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft and his deputy called it a “significant moment”.
“As you all know, tackling illegal migration is one of the prime minister’s top five priorities, and therefore the top priority of this department,” said an email seen by The Independent.
“Any new policy is only ever as good as its implementation … it will be extremely challenging work, but we are confident in the ability of our fantastic colleagues to rise to these challenges.”
A second communication, from senior officials Abi Tierney and Simon Ridley, said that “details of how the bill will be operationalised” had not yet been “worked through”.
“Many of you will be involved with helping to operationalise the legislation and we are confident you will deliver what is asked of us by ministers in a way that upholds the Home Office values,” it added.
“We are fully aware of the high level of scrutiny and attention that this area attracts.”
The communications praised civil servants, thanked them for their work and said managers were “proud” of them – a markedly different tone to a message from the Conservative Party to members.
In a letter to Rishi Sunak, FDA general secretary Dave Penman demanded a formal apology over claims that “an activist blob of left-wing lawyers, civil servants and the Labour Party blocked us” from previous attempts to stop small boat crossings.
“Civil servants are tasked with carrying out the settled will of government,” he added.
“This statement is a direct attack on the integrity and impartiality of the thousands of civil servants who loyally serve the home secretary, doing some of the most complex and difficult work in government.”
Mr Penman condemned the “cowardly attack” on staff who are unable to publicly defend themselves, warning that it risks further stoking tensions following violent protests at hotels used for asylum seekers.
He suggested that the statement, in Ms Braverman’s name, could break the ministerial code but a Conservative Party spokesperson later said: “This was a CCHQ email and the wording wasn’t seen by the home secretary. We are now reviewing our internal clearance processes.”
The row comes as Ms Braverman and Mr Sunak were urged to act on their vague pledge to look at new refugee schemes. Lord Harrington – who oversaw the government’s Ukrainian sponsorship scheme – said the government should create more “safe and legal” routes now.
“If they are preventing the crossing of small boats in the Channel, they should replace it will a properly-organised system of legal routes for people in desperate situations,” he said.
The Tory peer added: “The is a desperate need for people to move and take refuge, just like my own grandparents did. We need to provide safe and legal channels. Then we’ve got the moral high ground. Then I’d support the government.”
The government also announced on Tuesday that there will be annual cap on the number of refugees accepted. Lord Harrington said it would be “quite realistic” for the UK to absorb about 40,000 refugees a year.
Former justice Robert Buckland told The Independent he also wanted announcements on more safe and legal routes soon – as well as urging Mr Sunak to seek a returns agreement with France.
Mr Buckland, who said he was “carefully studying” the bill, said he hoped ministers would make sure any new refugee scheme plans are “brought forward to coincide with the enactment of the bill”.
The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, which represents Border Force officers, condemned the plans and accused the government of “demonising refugees in order to deflect from their catastrophic failures to address the current cost of living crisis”.
General secretary Mark Serwotka said: “The UK is the sixth richest economy on the planet and can afford to take care of its own citizens and take its fair share of refugees.”
The union called for “safe passage” visas to reduce the demand for small boat crossings, investment in asylum procedures and changes to immigration detention.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “As a department we always encourage the free exchange of ideas and want to thank all colleagues who have been involved in preparations for the introduction of the Illegal Migration Bill. Yesterday the Home Secretary also thanked the Home Office teams for all their work on the bill.
“While we appreciate there may be a range of views on government policy, all civil servants are bound by the Civil Service Code and its core values: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality – and it is key that this is upheld at all times.”