The Home Office’s top civil servant has said “everything is on the table” as he repeatedly refused to deny reports that the Government has considered processing asylum seekers on a remote UK territory in the Atlantic Ocean.
The department’s permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft also refused to answer direct questions on whether disused ferries could be turned into processing centres.
It follows reports the Government has looked at processing asylum seeker claims on Ascension Island, some 4,000 miles from the UK, or on ferries moored off the coast.
Giving evidence to the Commons Public Accounts Committee 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.”
Pressing Mr Rycroft further, Ms Hillier said the idea was “in the realms of cloud cuckoo land”, asking the permanent secretary once more to confirm if time was spent “investigating something where you couldn’t even land aircraft”.
He replied: “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.
Mr Rycroft told the committee that the Cabinet Office has launched an investigation into the leaks on ideas of how to process asylum seekers.
According to The Times, Number 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.
In a version of the Australian “offshore” model, asylum seekers could also be sent to detention centres in Papua New Guinea, Moldova, or Morocco, The Guardian said.
It claimed leaked documents had revealed Downing Street had asked officials to look into the matter, but was met with “pushback” from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
It comes amid controversy over a proposal discussed in the Home Office that asylum seekers could be processed on British overseas territory Ascension Island.
The idea reportedly being considered within Priti Patel’s department was dismissed on Wednesday as an unfeasible, “logistical nightmare” by a member of the Ascension Island Council, Alan Nicholls.
Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “The Tories are lurching from one inhumane and impractical idea to another.
“The idea of sending people to Ascension Island, creating waves in the English Channel to wash boats back and buying ferries and oil rigs to process asylum claims shows the Government has lost control and all sense of compassion.”
Ms Patel has vowed to stop migrants making the perilous journey across the English Channel in small boats amid record numbers of crossings.
The proposal further reflects the influence of Australia – which has controversially used offshore processing and detention centres for asylum seekers since the 1980s – on the UK’s immigration and asylum policy.