Row over maritime laws in bid to stop migrant crossings, MPs told

Row over maritime laws in bid to stop migrant crossings, MPs told

The UK Government is locked in a row with France over differing "interpretations" of maritime law in efforts to tackle the Channel migrant crossings crisis, MPs have heard.

Home Secretary Priti Patel sought to level blame at her French counterparts as she told the Commons Home Affairs Committee of the "unacceptable" numbers of people making the perilous journey in small boats.

Record numbers are thought to have made the crossing so far this year – particularly during the coronavirus pandemic – and more incidents were under way on Wednesday as Ms Patel discussed the problem with MPs.

Priti Patel
See Gallery
Priti Patel
Johnson silent over when he first knew of Priti Patel bullying allegations
Vanessa Feltz (left) sips tea with newly elected Witham MP Priti Patel during an event supporting Breast Cancer Care's Strawberry Tea fundraising campaign at the Houses of Parliament, Westminster, London.
Prime Minister David Cameron speaks with Witham MP Priti Patel in front of the Shah Sayyid Tomb in the Lodi Gardens in Delhi, India.
Prime Minister David Cameron and Witham MP Priti Patel, walk through Kolkata, India, where they visited the Howrah Bridge which was built by the Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company.
Priti Patel who is the new Employment Minister, arrives at 10 Downing Street in London, as the PM puts the finishing touches to his new cabinet.
(left to right) Justice Secretary Michael Gove, Minister for Employment Priti Patel and Works and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith arrive in Downing Street to take part in the first Cabinet meeting since the Conservative Party won the General Election.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre) is flanked by Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Hugo Swire (left) and Priti Patel (right) as he arrives at Heathrow Airport, London, for an official three day visit.
Employment minister Priti Patel launches a new government scheme to give extra careers advice to school pupils during a visit to Holy Trinity Catholic School in Birmingham.
(Left to right) John Whittingdale, Theresa Villiers, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Iain Duncan Smith and Priti Patel attend the launch of the Vote Leave campaign at the group's headquarters in central London.
EDITORIAL USE ONLY Minister for Employment Priti Patel tries her hand at painting with Matt Gray, Painting Skills Development Manager and Matt Pullen, CEO of AkzoNobel, as she officially opens AkzoNobel's Dulux Academy, the UK's first training facility dedicated to painters and decorators, Slough, Surrey.
Works and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb and Minister for Employment Priti Patel arrive for a Cabinet meeting in Downing Street, London.
Boris Johnson and Priti Patel meet workers at clothing and uniform manufacturers Simon Jersey in Accrington, Lancashire, during a visit as part of the Vote Leave EU referendum campaign.
Priti Patel speaks at a rally with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove (right) in Preston town centre, Lancashire, as part of the Vote Leave EU referendum campaign.
Michael Gove, Boris Johnson (centre) and Priti Patel pull pints of beer at the Old Chapel pub in Darwen in Lancashire, as part of the Vote Leave EU referendum campaign.
(left to right) Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Michael Gove during a visit to Farmhouse Biscuits in Nelson, Lancashire, where they were campaigning on behalf of the Vote Leave EU referendum campaign.
Boris Johnson auctions a cow during a visit to a cattle auction in Clitheroe in Lancashire, where he along with Priti Patel and Michael Gove are campaigning on behalf of the Vote Leave EU referendum campaign.
Priti Patel MP visits Shree Sanatan Hindu Mandir Temple in Wembley, London, whilst out campaigning on behalf of the Vote Leave campaign.
Priti Patel arrives at White Waltham Airfield in Maidenhead, Berkshire, to meet veterans who will outline why they are voting to leave the EU.
(Left-right) Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, International Development Secretary Priti Patel, Prime Minister Theresa May, Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London.
The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall with International Development Secretary Priti Patel (right) during a reception and dinner for supporters of the British Asian Trust at Guildhall, London.
Priti Patel (left) with Boris Johnson's father Stanley Johnson and sister Rachel Johnson watch him speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative Party annual conference at the International Convention Centre, Birmingham. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel on a walkabout with local police during a visit to North Road, Harbourne, Birmingham before announcing his plan to recruit an extra 20,000 police officers and an urgent review will take place of plans to make it easier for forces to use stop-and-search powers.

There is a "major, major problem with these small boats", she said, adding that the only way to make that route to the UK "unviable" was to intercept the boats at sea and turn them back to France.

She told MPs: "We are fundamentally looking at changing ways of working with France.

"I've had some very, very, I think it's fair to say, difficult discussions with my French counterpart, even looking at interceptions at sea, because currently the French authorities are not intercepting boats at sea.

"And by that I mean boats that are just 250 yards away from the French coast.

"I feel there could be stronger enforcement measures on the French side and they have heard that from me.

Row over maritime laws in bid to stop migrant crossings, MPs told

"We want to break this route, we want to make this route unviable, and in my view the only way we can do this is by intercepting and returning the boats back to France."

Asked by the committee if French authorities have powers to intercept boats in French waters, because officials there claimed they do not, she said: "That's absolutely right and that is what we are working to achieve, right down to sharing legal advice, legal guidance in terms of maritime laws.

"A lot of this is governed by maritime laws and the French authorities' interpretations of what they can and can't do at sea.

"It is our advice that they can go ahead and do that. That has been part of the discussions that we have been having with the French authorities throughout the entire coronavirus crisis."

Asked whether the "disagreement" over maritime laws is the basis of the problem as well as the terms of the Cherbourg agreement – which the committee heard is an informal agreement to intercept crossings at sea and repatriate boats back to France – she replied: "That is absolutely right."

Ms Patel said the agreement has been "inappropriately" described by colleagues as a "gentleman's agreement" but added: "These agreements are here to stand the test of time and to be operationalised."

She said she had been "making the point repeatedly to French counterparts", claiming the UK has offered to work with authorities at sea in joint exercises to demonstrate how boats can be returned safely.

She added: "It is equally important, along with maritime law, that we actually prevent loss of life at sea."

Home Affairs Select Committee
Home Secretary Priti Patel speaking to MPs on Wednesday (House of Commons/PA)

Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent in the last 10 years by her predecessors and on bilateral arrangements, Ms Patel said, adding that she wants to see more data and intelligence-sharing but suggested UK systems are "slightly more agile" than those on the Continent.

"In France, the system is not geared up to work in that way – that is part of the challenge that we have," she said.

Her comments come just days after she hailed a "new operational approach" to dealing with crossings after meeting French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin and agreeing to set up a Franco-British intelligence cell.

At the same time at least 180 migrants came to the UK across the Channel – a new single-day record.

Asked how many migrants had come into the country so far this year, she said: "I don't have those figures", despite confirming that she receives updates on a "daily basis", but conceded there had been a "surge" in numbers during the coronavirus pandemic.

She added: "These numbers as shocking, appalling and unacceptably high."

So far this year at least 2,552 migrants have made the crossing to the UK, according to analysis by the PA news agency.

As of July 2, 166 people were "ready" to be returned to Germany, Italy and France and return requests had been made for a further 577 who had come into the country this year alone, Ms Patel told MPs.

Although she praised French authorities for preventing "many more migrants from crossing" – more than 1,000 – she added: "Too many people are still making crossings."

Clearing migrant camps in France only causes "greater displacement", Ms Patel said, citing incidents of repeat crossing attempts.

"If they were genuine asylum seekers they would claim asylum in their first safe country, which is France," she said. "Let's not forget many of them have travelled through many other European countries."

Read Full Story Click here to comment