'You get perspective from the air': Minister defends Braverman's £3,500 an hour Chinook flight to migrant centres

4 November 2022, 07:19 | Updated: 4 November 2022, 09:41

Minister defends Surlla Braverman's Chinook flight

By Asher McShane

A Tory minister defended Suella Braverman's trip to view migrant centres in a Chinook helicopter by saying she could get "a lot of perspective" and survey the terrain by being in the air.

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The Home Secretary has sparked an angry backlash after taking the military aircraft to visit the overcrowded Manston migrant processing centre.

After describing the migrant crisis as an 'invasion,' Suella Braverman triggered further fury by taking the army helicopter instead of a car to visit the Kent site. The drive would have taken around 30 minutes.

Downing Street was yet again forced to jump to the defence of Ms Braverman as questions swirled about her £3,500-an-hour use of the military helicopter during a visit to Kent.

Chris Philp, the policing minister, told LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast: "My understanding was the helicopter wasn't simply to get from A to B, she was also inspecting operations in the English Channel, where obviously these boats are crossing, so it was for that wider purpose.

"In fact, when I was in France a year or two ago, when I was immigration minister, the French authorities there took me in a helicopter to look at the French beaches, and look at the places where these illegal embarkations were taking place from."

Asked about what kind of benefit Ms Braverman could get by being in the air, Mr Philp said: "You get a much better sense of the terrain, you understand the operational area, you can see the route to the beaches, you can see the embarkation points, you can see where the gendarmes patrol from, so you get a much better sense of what is going on on the ground.

"And that was French gendarme helicopter, it wasn’t paid for by the UK taxpayer, I should add. It did add a lot of perspective to the situation."

She dodged questions from the press and there has been no official reason given as to why she decided to go in a Chinook. She has been accused of wasting taxpayer's money on a stunt, with Chinooks costing thousands of pounds for every flight.

She met Border Force teams in Dover to discuss Channel crossings operations before visiting the scandal-hit and overcrowded Manston processing centre to hear updates from staff.

The Home Office has declined to offer any explanation over why she took a Chinook
The Home Office has declined to offer any explanation over why she took a Chinook. Picture: Alamy

She has come under mounting political pressure over the illegal conditions at the site near Ramsgate, where at one point as many as 4,000 people were being detained for weeks in a site intended to hold 1,600 for a matter of days.

Downing Street said the number has since reduced to 2,700, after more than 1,000 were moved in the last few days, and that the Prime Minister was receiving twice daily updates on the situation.

The Home Secretary shied away from the media as she visited Dover's Western Jet Foil site - the scene of a petrol bomb attack on Sunday - amid concerns of rising far-right activity fuelled by the failure to control the number of migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats.

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The helicopter costs £3,500 to fly
The helicopter costs £3,500 to fly. Picture: Alamy

Arriving during a heavy downpour of rain, and accompanied by a large entourage of staff, she spent about half an hour being shown around the facility, where migrants are first taken after arriving on the south coast, and briefly boarded a docked patrol boat.

She then met the Dover coastguard, before flying to Manston in a Chinook, a decision defended by Downing Street as it emerged the helicopter costs about £3,500 an hour to fly.

Ms Braverman spent about two hours at the site, leaving by a side gate away from press gathered at the main entrance.

Several coaches were seen leaving Manston during the course of the visit, including one with children on board who waved and gave peace signs out of the window.

Read more: 'We really need your help': Migrant children throw letter over wall begging for help to escape 'prison'

North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale, who previously raised concerns about the conditions, was also seen leaving the site.

But Natalie Elphicke, the Dover MP, accused Ms Braverman of failing to meet other Kent politicians during her trip, describing it as a "great pity".

"The small boats crisis is not just in the migrant processing facilities, it is on our Kent beaches, schools, services and housing," she said.

Despite avoiding questions from the press throughout the day, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt insisted Ms Braverman is prepared to "face the music" when he was asked why she was not, like him, taking interviews.

In other developments:

  • Government minister Graham Stuart conceded Manston was not operating legally and "none of us are comfortable with it", but sought to blame an "unacceptable surge" in small boat crossings for the problem, adding that the "system is struggling to cope".
  • Lawyers on behalf of charity Detention Action and a woman held at Manston confirmed they were threatening legal action against the Home Secretary over the conditions.
  • Four parliamentary committee chiefs piled further pressure on the Home Secretary to explain how the Government will get a grip on both the situation at Manston and the migrant crisis in general.
  • Council chiefs warned Kent is at "breaking point" as a result of the migrant situation, with the potential for disorder at Manston and the risk of far-right violence.
  • Asylum seekers reportedly left at London's Victoria station without accommodation after being taken away from Manston are said to have been taken to a hotel in Norwich.
  • Police confirmed they were investigating allegations of rape and sexual assault at a hotel in east London which houses asylum seekers.
  • A rising number of lone migrant children are being found in hotels having been "mistakenly identified" as adults, the chief inspector of Ofsted warned.
  • Mr Stuart also acknowledged there had been "unfortunate language" used to describe the crisis following the condemnation of Ms Braverman who had claimed there was an "invasion on our southern coast".
  • The prime minister of Albania Edi Rama accused Britain of becoming like a "madhouse" with a culture of "finding scapegoats" during a migration crisis where "failed policies" are to blame, hitting out at Ms Braverman's "crazy" choice of language.
  • Downing Street did not deny the Government was also trying to strike Rwanda-style deals to deport migrants with Belize, Peru and Paraguay.

Rishi Sunak has described the migrant crisis as a "serious and escalating problem" and admitted that "not enough" asylum claims are being processed, but insisted the Government is getting a grip on the situation.

The Home Office said steps are being taken "immediately" to improve conditions at Manston, including bolstering medical facilities, supplying extra bedding and better catering as well as more activities to support migrant welfare.

Ms Braverman said: "I have met with our expert teams who work tirelessly to save lives and protect the UK's borders.

"I wanted to see first hand how we're working to reduce the number of people in Manston, support people there, and thank staff for all their efforts.

"I am incredibly proud of the skill and dedication shown to tackle this challenging situation here on a daily basis.

"This is a complex and difficult situation, which we need to tackle on all fronts and look at innovative solutions.

"To break the business model of the people smugglers, we need to ensure that the illegal migration route across the Channel is ultimately rendered unviable."