UK home secretary Suella Braverman was warned on four occasions in September and October that her department was potentially breaking the law by detaining migrants for longer than allowed, MPs were told on Wednesday.
Dame Diana Johnson, Labour chair of the House of Commons home affairs select committee, said Braverman had been told on September 15 — nine days into her first Home Office stint — of “deepening problems” at the Manston detention centre in Kent that were “likely to be in breach of the law”.
Designed to hold 1,600 people, Manston was by that point housing far more detainees, some of them for weeks in excess of the 24 hours permitted by law and despite outbreaks of diseases such as diphtheria.
Braverman was warned again of potential illegality at the camp on September 22, October 1 and October 4 and advised by officials that her department did “not have power to detain people while waiting for onward accommodation or for welfare reasons”, said Johnson.
Braverman faced questions from the committee, as criticism of her handling of the crisis in the asylum system and the number of people entering Britain through unofficial channels continues.
Johnson’s claims come as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government faces competing pressures from business to boost legal immigration to the UK amid labour shortages and from parts of the public and Tory members to bring numbers down.
The Office for National Statistics will on Thursday publish its latest data on migration.
Braverman told MPs she had at all times listened to legal advice and taken it into account when making decisions.
The system, she said, had been overwhelmed by the more than 40,000 people who have this year crossed the English Channel in small boats, a huge backlog of asylum claims and extra strain from the 140,000 refugees from Ukraine.
“It is becoming incredibly difficult to source accommodation, suitable shelter for the unprecedented levels of people coming into this country,” said Braverman.
She added that the Home Office had competing legal responsibilities regarding its approach to the problems at Manston, including to ensure that people were not released into homelessness and destitution.
Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary at the Home Office, said legal advice about the situation at Manston “had been consistent” and that Braverman “had been aware of that advice”.
Braverman later acknowledged the scale of the backlog in asylum applications, which experts have claimed was clogging up the system and contributing to the government’s daily bill of more than £6mn for hotel accommodation.
She added that although caseworkers were at present processing one asylum claim a week, the Home Office planned to cut the backlog by recruiting 500 more caseworkers by next March.
That would take the total to more than 1,300 caseworkers, accounting for attrition, she said.
Braverman acknowledged she first knew of the problems at Manston in September but refused to accept blame for the crisis.
“It is the people who are breaking our rules coming here illegally, exploiting vulnerable people and trying to abuse the generosity of the British people. That’s who’s at fault,” she said.
Charities, migration experts and immigration lawyers have argued that the lack of alternative legal routes for people seeking asylum in Britain is spurring the number of Channel crossings.
Neither Braverman nor Rycroft was able to answer a question from Tory MP Tim Loughton who asked how a hypothetical 16-year-old from an east African war zone, persecuted for religious reasons and with a sister legally resident in the UK, could reach the UK to claim asylum by legal means.