Home Office 'considered' building floating walls to stop migrants, report claims

2 October 2020, 01:02

The government has reportedly considered building floating walls in the Channel to block migrants
The government has reportedly considered building floating walls in the Channel to block migrants. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The Home Office launched a secret consultation on building floating walls in the English Channel to prevent migrant crossings, according to a leaked document.

Trade group Maritime UK was approached by the government to explore the possibility of building temporary "marine fencing" to block asylum seekers from reaching Britain, The Financial Times has reported.

The Home Office refused to comment on the report, with a spokeswoman saying the department "does not comment on leaks".

It comes after a top civil servant repeatedly refused to deny reports that No 10 was considering sending migrants 4,000 miles away to Ascension Island for asylum processing.

The Home Office's permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft would also not answer direct questions on whether processing centres would be constructed on offshore, disused ferries.

On Thursday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer condemned the "inhuman" suggestions arising in reports and told the department to "get your house in order".

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The Financial Times said an email from Maritime UK on 17 September revealed that government staff were considering the idea of building floating barriers in the Channel.

Meanwhile, The Times reported that other proposals drawn up by the Home Office included deploying a water cannon to create waves to push back boats.

Giving evidence to the Commons Public Accounts Committee earlier on Thursday, Mr Rycroft refused to confirm if Ascension Island was being considered as a "serious suggestion" - despite being asked four times.

When committee chairman Meg Hillier asked Mr Rycroft: "Was this really a serious suggestion?", he replied: "The civil service is here to give ministers impartial, fearless, honest, expert, independent advice and that is what we do. And the system works when we do that in private."

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Mr Rycroft later added: "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."

Labour MP Ms Hillier then asked Mr Rycroft if any further offshore proposals had been discussed, adding: "In your professional opinion, Mr Rycroft, is putting people on old ferries offshore an improvement to our asylum accommodation system?"

He responded that "no decision has been taken", while adding that the department was considering its options and responding to ministers' requests to do so.

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Later, Sir Keir told reporters in Westminster: "This isn't creative thinking, this is lurching from one ridiculous proposition to the next - these suggestions are inhuman and the government shouldn't be pursuing them.

He added: "Get your house in order, get that sorted out instead of lurching from one ridiculous proposition to another."

According to The Times, No 10 is considering buying retired ferries and converting the vessels into processing centres to house asylum seekers off the UK coast.

The newspaper also reported the Home Office discussed moving migrants to decommissioned oil platforms in the North Sea for processing, but the idea was rejected.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "As the public will fully understand, we do not comment on operational matters because to do so could provide an advantage to the exploitative and ruthless criminals who facilitate these dangerous crossing, as they look for new ways to beat the system."