Navy ships can’t be used for Patel’s plan to arrest Channel refugees, minister admits

Navy ships can’t be used for Patel’s plan to arrest Channel refugees, minister admits
Hunt on for suitable vessels, but James Heappey won’t say what they will be – in case ‘price goes up’

Navy ships cannot be used for Priti Patel’s plans to intercept refugees crossing the Channel, a minister has admitted – which will require new boats at unknown cost.

The home secretary’s hardline policy will criminalise anyone making the journey in small boats – instead of just those landing on the UK coast – using the military to bolster the Border Force.

But James Heappey, the armed forces minister, has admitted Navy vessels are unsuitable for the task, because they sit “too high above the water” for migrants and refugees to board.

“We’ll need additional platforms that are appropriate to the task, because you need a very low outboard height in order to be able to safely bring people from a dinghy into your vessel,” Mr Heappey said.

The government would prefer to “intercept a higher number of people in the Channel” which, under the controversial Nationality and Borders Bill, will be the “point of arrest now”.

But that will require leasing “a certain type of platform”, the minister said, adding: “I’m not going to give you the name of the platform here and now, not least, because it might find that the market price for those platforms goes up.”

Mr Heappey went on to suggest the “platforms’ would be other vessels, rather than any physical structure, in an interview with LBC radio.

The hunt is on for “ten of the kind of larger vessels that you would use to do the mid-Channel cross-decking”, he said.

In addition, the government will need “a number of smaller vessels to shadow dinghies to the shore”, those which are so flimsy it would be “too dangerous” to make arrests at sea.

The use of the Navy was signalled last month as part of Boris Johnson’s ‘Operation Red Meat’, designed to woo Conservative MPs threatening to topple him over the Partygate scandal.

But The Independent understands there is now intense wrangling between the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence over how to implement the policy.

The Navy is exploring how to lease boats that refugees can board, but an expected announcement had to be delayed because of a lack of agreement.

There is already criticism about the vast cost of Mr Patel’s overhaul of the asylum system – forecast to reach £2.7bn, almost double the current bill for taxpayers.

Refugee charities warn it will cost £1.4bn to send asylum seekers abroad while their applications are assessed, £717m for new reception centres and £432m to jail people making the crossings.

Mr Heappey described the current operation to intercept boats as “pretty successful”, despite the huge increase in the numbers making the crossing.

He argued that “9 per cent of the dinghies that go into the water are identified, observed and are tracked as they move towards the UK”.

“Whether they are then intercepted at sea or whether the people, as they disembark, are arrested or taken away at that point, is the concern,” Mr Heappey said.