Conservative MPs on Tuesday criticised the Government’s approach to the Channel crisis despite Rishi Sunak’s claim that his plan to stop small boat crossings is “starting to work”.
The Prime Minister announced two more barges to house asylum seekers in the UK, with Birkenhead, Wirral one of the locations under consideration to berth a vessel that could house up to 1,800 on the River Mersey, i has learnt.
Mr Sunak also said the numbers crossing the Channel this year were down by a fifth (23.5 per cent) compared to the same period last year – to 7,610 from 9,954 as of June 3.
He said a deal with Albania to return migrants from the Balkan nation was beginning having a deterrent effect, leading to a 90 per cent drop in the number coming to the UK on small boats.
But it meant that Afghans fleeing the Taliban were once again the most common nationality of people arriving on small boats this year.
It also came as senior Tory MPs questioned whether voters would feel the plan is working when there are still thousands of asylum seekers crossing the Channel.
Several Conservatives also continued to criticised the Government for placing those who make the perilous journey in hotels or new purposed accommodation in their constituencies, with one MP describing the Bibby Stockholm barge that will open in Portland, Dorset, in the next two weeks as a “quasi-prison”.
Mr Sunak was also unable to say whether weather was a factor in the drop in numbers, with officials understood to accept sea conditions could have influenced the frequency of crossings.
Labour also said claims the Government was bringing down the asylum backlog were “wrong”.
Responding to Mr Sunak’s speech, one senior Tory MP told i: “The numbers are all over the place, it’s all spin.”
The MP also pointed out that a significant deportation deal was signed with Albania last summer before Mr Sunak became PM.
“If he thinks he can stand up and say it’s working without explaining how it’s working, then I think we’ve got a problem.”
Voters will “not” feel a 20 per cent drop in numbers either, the MP added.
“He’s overpromising and underdelivering, the public need to be able to see it and feel it and they are not.”
A second Tory MP, also questioned whether highlighting a modest reduction in the number of crossings was wise when Mr Sunak has pledged to “stop the boats”.
The second MP told i: “It’s 20 per cent down – but that’s still so many thousands who have come over and it’s 20 per cent down on last year, which was a record-breaking year, are we really pointing to that as a success?”
Richard Drax, whose South Dorset constituency will house the Bibby Stockholm barge, said making asylum seekers sleep four-to-a-room was like putting them in prison, as Mr Sunak confirmed plans for multiple occupancy accommodation and that the vessel would become operational in Portland in the next two weeks.
Mr Drax told LBC: “I’m against it. It is designed for 222 ensuite, it will have 506 on board.
“Some of the rooms will be doubled of course, and some will have to have three or four inhabitants in them, adding to the pressure there.
“The second issue, is when they leave the port, if they can get out, because this barge will be nothing more than a quasi prison, is when they go into Weymouth what will they do?
In the Commons, Tory Party deputy chairman Lee Anderson said the Government’s plan would not work until it began to deport people to Rwanda, with the Court of Appeal set to rule on the controversial policy soon.
“Sharing rooms and barges, and relying on the French is not the answer. I think we all know, anybody with common sense in this place knows what the answer is, and that is to get the flights off to Rwanda as quickly as possible.”
But in a sign of Tory divisions, his party colleague Danial Kawczynski questioned whether Rwanda was a “safe country” to deport people to, highlighting claims from the Democratic Republic of Congo that “Rwanda is funding a terrorist organisation, the M23, which is destabilising north-east Congo and is resulting in the deaths of many Congolese citizens”.
Nickie Aiken, Tory MP for Cities of London and Westminster, criticised ministers for housing asylum seekers in central London where accommodation is “smaller and more expensive”, after 40 asylum seekers refused to share rooms in a hotel in Pimlico.
Meanwhile, Peter William Walsh, senior researcher at Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, cautioned Mr Sunak against drawing “too firm conclusions” about whether his plan was working until summer, when crossings tend to peak, “as irregular arrivals are prone to significant fluctuations”.
Dr Walsh added: “It could be that the Government’s deterrent policy is having an effect, but it is currently not possible to disentangle the Government’s policy changes from the range of other factors that influence irregular arrivals.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the promise of further measures to tackle the crisis was “like Groundhog Day”.
“All we’ve really had from the Government though is the announcement of a policy that doesn’t work and then the reannouncement of the same policy, essentially.”