Priti Patel is threatening to file a formal complaint after Home Office sources made a ‘categorically false’ claim that she oversaw a two-month summer ‘break’ to find hotel rooms for job seekers asylum.
The former home secretary said she was considering writing to the department’s top official after ‘unfounded’ briefings seeking to blame her for decisions made under her successor, Suella Braverman.
The department has been consumed by the crisis unfolding at the Manston treatment center in Kent, which had 4,100 people at its peak, despite a capacity of 1,600. The struggling site, where people arriving in the UK in small boats are taken away for initial checks, has been thoroughly cleaned, Interior Ministry sources confirmed on Tuesday.
The row between the former Home Secretary and her former department comes after two Home Office sources told the Guardian there was a ‘pause’ between mid-June and mid-August in the establishment of hotels for asylum seekers.
The alleged pause – which meant new accommodation was not signed to accommodate expected new arrivals in small boats – has been discussed in recent weeks at a “senior level” within the department, the sources said.
The Home Office’s failure to find hotels for asylum seekers has been blamed for leading to illegal conditions in Manston. Sources say the government is facing at least three judicial reviews of detainees.
Speaking for the first time about her alleged role in the asylum backlog, Patel said any indication that she breached her legal obligations by failing to book hotels for asylum seekers was false.
She said, “The department fulfilled its legal obligations regarding the accommodation of asylum seekers in hotels during my tenure. Any indication that I have not made is categorically false.
“These claims have already arisen from sources within the Home Office. I will consider filing a formal complaint with the Permanent Secretary if these unfounded allegations persist.
His threat follows weeks of briefings and counter-briefings from allies of Patel and Braverman on who is responsible for not finding accommodation for people who crossed the Channel in small boats.
Previously Whitehall sources were cited claiming Patel was responsible for the backlog. This is the first time sources have identified specific dates during his tenure where the hotels were not found by authorities.
Officials fear taxpayers will be liable for compensation amounting to tens of millions of pounds after the overcrowding. Braverman is preparing to appear before the Home Affairs Select Committee on Wednesday, when she will be questioned about the legality of the detentions – and whether she was responsible for not finding accommodation.
MPs plan to ask her about reports that she ignored legal advice that asylum seekers had been detained for too long and needed to be moved urgently.
Braverman has denied Sunday Times claims that she ignored legal advice that the government was illegally detaining thousands of asylum seekers.
It is understood that Manston remains open and will continue to be used as needed to carry out initial checks on migrants as more arrive.
There have been a series of controversies at the site, including outbreaks of infectious diseases such as diphtheria, the stranding of asylum seekers in central London and the death of an asylum seeker placed there Saturday.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘Manston, by design, is meant to be a temporary detention centre, where people are processed before they leave – normally, fairly quickly.
“Obviously there were immediate challenges, particularly after the other center’s attack, which pushed the numbers up. So we can expect the numbers to be relatively low on a day-to-day basis, as the people are moved quickly.
Asked to comment on claims that Patel has halted the search for hotel rooms for asylum seekers, a Home Office spokesman said: ‘The use of hotels to accommodate asylum seekers asylum is unacceptable – there are currently over 37,000 asylum seekers in hotels which are costing the UK taxpayer dearly. £5.6 per day.
“Using hotels is a short-term solution and we are working hard with local authorities to find suitable accommodation.”
More than 42,000 people have arrived in the UK so far this year after crossing the English Channel in small boats, according to provisional government figures.