Priti Patel‘s allies have laid a flurry of embarrassing leaks disclosing brainstorming on asylum policy firmly at the door of the Foreign Office.
The past week has seen several reports emerge describing extraordinary measures being mooted by the Home Office to get to grips with migration.
One claimed that Ms Patel had instructed her department to weigh up the logistics of shipping migrants to islands and far-flung overseas territories for processing, including Ascension Island, 4,000 miles away in the south Atlantic.
Others revealed proposals for a wave machine in the Channel to push back boats trying to make the crossing, and a plan to house those who do reach British waters on disused ferries.
The slew of damaging briefings has infuriated the upper echelons of the Home Office, with Permanent Secretary Matthew Rycroft confirming an inquiry into the leaks.
It risks exploding into an all-out Whitehall blame-war after supporters of Ms Patel hit back yesterday and pointed the finger at Foreign Office officials.
New proposals are part of Priti Patel ‘s over-arching programme to crackdown on the Channel migrant crisis
The past week has seen several reports emerge describing extraordinary measures being mooted by the Home Office to get to grips with migration, including processing asylum seekers in far-flung locations
A Conservative MP and ally told The Times the department was conjuring up ‘bizarre and unworkable policy options, then leaking them’ to discredit the Home Office’s work to curb the levels of illegal migration.
But other government sources pointed to Number 10 chief adviser Dominic Cummings as the mastermind behind some of the more blue-sky thinking, such as the processing centres in British overseas territories.
One told The Times: ‘Priti is being used as a punchbag… People are so afraid of crossing Dom that they are pinning it on other departments.’
The wheels of a Home Office probe into the leaks are already in motion to root out the source.
Asked at the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) whether he thought the investigation will take account of the timing of the leaks and whether they were politically motivated, Mr Rycroft said: ‘I’m sure they will look at all relevant factors.’
The wave machine option plan was among ‘blue sky’ ideas looked at by officials to discourage migrants from trying to cross in small boats – although it was quickly rejected.
The government has been working on ways to overhaul the creaking asylum system and crack down on abuse.
The marina at Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Migrants who land in Britain could be flown to hostels on the island
Migrants are currently being housed in Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent, which has been repurposed for them
The Home Office’s top civil servant Matthew Rycroft told the Public Accounts Committee: ‘This is in the realms of a brainstorming stage of a future policy, everything is on the table’
Sources complained that already-dismissed proposals such as creating a processing site on Ascension Island, more than 4,000 miles from the UK, were being leaked by officials who ‘don’t like the whole concept’.
Ironically, a snap YouGov poll has found the public backed the idea of by a margin of 40 per cent to 35 per cent. However, that proposal has already been ditched.
An ally of the Home Secretary said ‘offshoring’ was being attacked by people who did not like it.
‘It is a perfectly logical idea, but someone who doesn’t like the whole concept said ‘you can only do it if it happens 4,000 miles away’ and leaked that,’ they said.
The Isle of Wight proposal is understood to have ‘problems’, but other islands around the UK – including off the coast of Scotland – and old ferries are being seriously looked at.
‘This is still very early days,’ one source said.
Ms Sturgeon waded into the row yesterday, saying: ‘They can rest assured that any proposal to treat human beings like cattle in a holding pen will be met with the strongest possible opposition from me.’
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds added: ‘The Tories are lurching from one inhumane and impractical idea to another.
‘The idea of sending people to Ascension Island, creating waves in the English Channel to wash boats back and buying ferries and oil rigs to process asylum claims shows the Government has lost control and all sense of compassion.’
Mr Rycroft faced a grilling on the leaked plans when he faced MPs yesterday.
Citing problems with the landing strips in St Helena and Ascension Island, PAC chairwoman Meg Hillier said the idea was ‘in the realms of cloud cuckoo land’, asking once more ‘Can you just confirm whether or not civil service time was actually spent investigating something where you couldn’t even land aircraft?’
Mr Rycroft said: ‘What I can confirm is that the civil service has been responding to ministers’ questions about how other countries deal with what is a global issue – migration.
‘We have been leaving no stone unturned in doing that. We’ve been looking at what a whole host of other countries do in order to bring innovation into our own system. No decisions have been taken.
‘No final proposals have been put to ministers or to anyone else.
‘This is in the realm of the brainstorming stage of a future policy and, I think as ministers have said in the House, everything is on the table, and so it should be at this stage of the policy-making process.’
Official documents marked ‘sensitive’ and produced earlier this month, summarise advice from officials at the Foreign Office, which was asked by No10 to ‘offer advice on possible options for negotiating an offshore asylum processing facility similar to the Australian model in Papua New Guinea and Nauru’.
Home Office aides have also been ordered to draw up feasibility studies for the hostel-type centres on islands within the British Isles.
A group of people thought to be migrants are brought into Dover, Kent, by Border Force following a small boat incident in the Channel yesterday
It emerged yesterday that officials had previously looked at locating a centre on Ascension Island or St Helena, thousands of miles away in the South Atlantic.
However, using such distant British overseas territories was ruled impractical over costs and logistical problems. Now, proposals for asylum centres on islands closer to home will be drawn up.
Migrants could be processed on disused ferries moored off the coast under the plans being considered.
Another option being considered is buying retired ferries and converting them into asylum-processing centres.
Boris Johnson is keen to deter migrants from making dangerous crossings from France with the proposals.
Meanwhile, The Times has been told that the Home Office held discussions about moving migrants to decommissioned oil platforms in the North Sea while their applications are processed. However, ministers decided that it was a ‘no go’ .
According to the Financial Times, other ‘blue sky’ options discussed include laying booms, barriers or even small boats together in parts of the Channel to stop migrants reaching the shore.
Another option was to have boats with pumps generating waves in a bid to force boats back into French waters.
However, the possibility was rejected amid concerns migrants in already-overladen boats would be capsized.
The plan to move migrants to ships is thought more realistic and is being given serious consideration.