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Priti Patel: "I rule nothing out in terms of stopping boats and saving lives"

Photography by Baldo Sciacca

10 min read

After surviving Boris Johnson’s reshuffle job intact, home secretary Priti Patel tells The House her work to overhaul one of Whitehall’s largest departments continues. It’s a round-the-clock task, flare ups with the French are par for the course, and “fun is limited” – but, she says, it’s the privilege of her life.

"There are all sorts of issues and choices to make, and I have a huge amount of personal respect and admiration for the Prime Minister,” Priti Patel says. She is perched on a sofa in her airy modern office just before Parliament breaks for the conference recess. But while she describes the reshuffle as nerve-wracking, in truth there was little doubt Patel would be delivering the home secretary’s speech to Tory Conference.

She laughs: “I’m just always glad once it’s over and you can get back to work.”

Being reappointed was a “huge moment” she says, “an immense thing”. Why does she think she kept her job? It’s thanks to her committment to the security of the country. “I’m all about public service,” she says. “I have delivered.”

Patel, 49, was in the Prime Minster’s Downing Street office for just 20 minutes during a far more brutal than expected cabinet clear out. By modern standards her reappointment was swift and seen as a vote of confidence in her work. She believes the pandemic has to a large degree masked some of the seismic changes that have happened at the Home Office in the past two years, and when she reels them off, they have the hallmarks of the “reforming” agenda Boris Johnson is said to be keen to see other secretaries of state emulate before the next election.

“In 2019 I said I would deliver a points-based immigration system. We now have [that], as of October last year. So in less than a year after the election, we have the British points-based system, which is based on skills, our economy, the brightest and the best, and not where people have come from. A lot of that has got lost in the wider, day to day of how government has had to deal with the pandemic.”

I’m just always glad once it’s over and you can get back to work.

The target to hire 20,000 more police officers by the end of this parliament is half-way to being met already, with 10,000 recruited, she says.

“I’ve re-organised the department,” she adds, referencing the merging of immigration enforcement and Border Force work into one division, reporting to one director general, effectively bringing together policy and operational staff.

Few departments have been subject to such a national outcry as the Home Office over the last three decades. It is behemoth in size and scope, and has been hit with a litany of controversies in recent years.

In 2018 the Windrush scandal broke, exposing the full extent of the “hostile environment” of Theresa May’s time in charge. Britain’s treatment of Commonwealth immigrants will live long in the nation’s collective memory. Napier Barracks in Kent, which houses asylum seekers, was found not to be suitable for human habitation by Public Health England even before a Covid outbreak struck. This summer, a judge ruled that the accommodation had failed to meet minimum standards. Human rights groups have called deportation flights of foreign-born criminals “inhumane”. Some of those removed had lived in the UK since they were children and so had no connection to the Caribbean islands they were often sent to.

The UK Nationality and Borders Bill is currently moving through the Commons, and aims to rapidly remove asylum seekers who come to the UK via unauthorised routes; according to the UN Refugee Agency this would be a violation of international law. The independent anti-slavery commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton, has warned that the proposals could make it harder to identify victims of modern slavery. Plans to push back boats coming from France into the English Channel have been criticised by French interior minister Gérald Darmanin, and the Élysée had said it will not do anything contrary to international maritime law. One of the government’s own MPs, Tim Loughton, a member of the Home Affairs Committee, made the stark point that push-back risks capsizing boats and risking lives.

Relations between the Home Office and France look particularly poor right now, I suggest, considering the huge number of migrants crossing the channel and the war of words over responsibility for stopping trips being made in the first place.

The UK has threatened to withhold £54m to support France with its patrols if crossings continue to escalate, with Home Office figures suggesting that more than 16,000 migrants have crossed the Channel in small boats so far in 2021, double the figure for 2020.

The Times reported that the Home Office wants France to stop 75 per cent of crossings, with interior minister Darmanin tweeting they would not be financially blackmailed.

There is no such thing about money for nothing. Let me be very clear about that. And there never is.

“I have always had a constructive working relationship with my counterparts, full stop; all my counterparts around the world. That applies to the French interior minister as well,” Patel insists.

She said her conversation with him at the recent G7 meeting of interior ministers had been “very honest, but open, and rational” and a “pragmatic discussion”.

On the financial offer, she said it’s not about “giving” France money, and their collaboration extends to practical support including policing on the beaches, the roads and at the French-Belgian border.

“There is no such thing about money for nothing. Let me be very clear about that. And there never is,” Patel says.

There is no silver bullet to fix the migration crisis which is now a decade old, she adds, and for Europe it’s a serious problem.

Asked if she was offended by Darmanin describing the UK position as financial blackmail, she says: “I don’t get involved in that kind of rhetoric and language. I’ve made it abundantly clear; we work constructively and there are a lot of people in the British government, in Paris and in Belgium, [the] Netherlands, Germany, all working collaboratively together, and I can’t emphasise that enough. These are difficult conversations.

“As I’ve said previously, 70 per cent of people that come into France come across the Belgian border. They are facing serious pressures; this is not something that can be eradicated just by one intervention or one action.”

Is she still pursuing the push-back policy for boats coming into British waters, despite France’s suggestion it could break international maritime law? She responds bluntly: “Everything we do is legal and within the law.”

So it’s still planned? “Everything we do is legal, and I rule nothing out in terms of stopping the boats and saving lives, because by the time people are in the water, their lives are at risk.”

Some of the more outlandish ideas for stopping crossings coming out of the Home Office were leaked to the press, and included proposals to set up a wave machine to deter migrant boats. Processing asylum seekers on the remote South Atlantic Ascension Island was also floated. On processing asylum seekers outside of the UK, Patel again says she rules nothing out.  

“It’s right that governments and home secretaries should be able to consider every single option across the whole of government,” she says.

Everything we do is legal, and I rule nothing out in terms of stopping the boats and saving lives, because by the time people are in the water, their lives are at risk.

The leak was “unfortunate” but she says it doesn’t stop her wanting to “deliver for the British people”. Ascension Island is no longer thought to be a serious option, but third country processing will become law if the Nationality and Borders Bill is passed.

The remainder of the parliament will be largely dedicated to overhauling the entire asylum system, Patel says.

“We are changing our laws. Putting asylum seekers in hotels is not the right approach, but because of the pandemic our hands were tied and we were told very clearly by public health guidance what we needed to do so we followed that.

“But going forward we have to look at new models of accommodation, new models of digitalising casework, turning cases round in a faster way. Making sure that people are not going back to the courts again and again and again with repeated failed claims. We cannot keep on having this culture of claims that are simply not meritorious still going back to the courts again and again – that’s what we want to change.”

On whether Afghans with links to the UK who came through the recent resettlement scheme will still be in hotels by Christmas, she says: “I don’t know. It’s for local government. It’s for them to work with the resettlement team to bring that together.”

If the Home Office was hostile under May’s tenure, how would Patel describe her time at the helm? She says: “It’s an incredible organisation, it really is. I pay tribute to so many of my [predecessors] for their time here and the challenges that they have faced. This is a difficult department because of the work that we do – national security, saving lives, decisions that are made that impact people’s lives. I’m so conscious of the fact I have inherited some really challenging areas.” 

Is the department still “hostile”? “I can’t relate to that.” Patel goes on: “For people that know me, they know that I care deeply about people and I have a lot of compassion.

“You mentioned the hostile environment; I would mention Windrush, the work that I have led in terms of Windrush compensation, overhauling the scheme, setting up stakeholder groups, putting people first, treating people and thinking of people rather than just cases.

“For too long this has been a case-working organisation, and I always put names and faces first.”

This is a difficult department because of the work that we do – national security, saving lives, decisions that are made that impact people’s lives.

In August, £1.5 million was paid out to Windrush victims claiming compensation, but the scandal remains a flashpoint. Days before our interview, two victims, Henry Vaughan, 67, and Fitzroy Maynard, 55, launched legal proceedings against the Home Office for delays in issuing compensation owed to them.

With such a serious brief Patel admits “fun is limited” and when she isn’t in the office, she spends her rare moments of time off with her family. Her Indian-born parents came to the UK from Uganda in the 1960s, settling at first in Hertfordshire.

“For me, any time out of the office is with my family. I don’t see my family a great deal for obvious reasons. I get woken up at 2am, 3am, on all sorts of issues. My family, my son, they’re really precious to me, but this job is 24/7 and with that I have huge responsibilities I simply will not resile from,” she says.

Go on, there must have been some time for a bit of joy this summer? With a huge smile, she says she managed to squeeze in a few hours watching her young son play cricket.

And with that, the interview is over; a woman appears at the door clutching a laptop and looking harried and whisks the home secretary away.

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