The Cabinet Office has launched a leak inquiry following a series of media reports about plans to detain asylum seekers offshore.
The existence of the probe emerged as Home Office permanent secretary Philip Rycroft told parliament’s Public Accounts Committee that “everything is on the table” in discussions about reforming the asylum system.
Rycroft appeared before the committee yesterday, following a series of leaks of confidential documents and briefings from “blue sky” discussions at the Home Office, Foreign Office and No.10. They showed officials had looked at options for deterring and detaining asylum seekers that have widely been condemned as “cruel” – including setting up detention centres on the overseas territory of Ascension Island.
But Rycroft refused to be drawn on the content of the leaks, saying: “The civil service is here to give ministers impartial, fearless, honest, expert, independent advice and that is what we do. The system works when we do this in private.”
He confirmed that the Cabinet Office inquiry would look at the timing of the leaks and consider whether they were politically motivated.
The perm sec declined several times to answer whether Ascension Island – one of several locations discussed by civil servants according to the leaks – was a “serious suggestion”.
Asked whether detaining asylum seekers on disused ferries – another option believed to be under consideration – would be an improvement on the existing system, the perm sec said "no decision has been taken".
“The advice that has been, and will continue to come back, will cover all different aspects including the law, operational practicalities, financing, value for money, diplomatic issues, public engagement issues. All that needs to happen privately in order for the civil service to give ministers the best advice we can,” Rycroft said.
He added that civil servants were looking into different options to improve the asylum system at ministers’ request. Rycroft said that ultimately, civil servants were looking at how to ensure the system is not “abused”, but meets its international obligations to protect refugees.
He said while some of the options being considered would represent “continuity” with the present system, other proposals would look “very different”.
He told MPs: "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.”
He said the options being mooted were “in the realm of the brainstorming stage of a future policy… everything is on the table, and so it should be at this stage of the policy-making process”.
“No final proposals have been put to ministers or to anyone else,” he added.
Minnie Rahman, public affairs and campaigns manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said the proposals that came to light this week were “cruel and farcical”, while the chief executive of Refugee Action, Stephen Hale, said “Britain is better than this”.
“The government’s speculative plans to round up human beings and confine them to prison boats or camps on remote islands are inhumane and morally bankrupt,” he said.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told reporters the proposals were “inhuman and the government shouldn't be pursuing them”, adding: "This isn't creative thinking, this is lurching from one ridiculous proposition to the next.”
Conservative MP Adam Holloway, a member of the Home Affairs Committee, said: "The Home Office is completely right to look at other options so there is some sort of deterrent but not the Australian model where you have poor welfare standards and everything else. We've got to find a civilised version of that."
He said some deterrent was needed to prevent people making “extremely dangerous journeys” across the sea to apply for asylum in the UK, but that “talk of oil rigs and Moldova and Papua New Guinea, to me, is somewhat bizarre”.
The leaks showed officials have been asked to consider the possibility of setting up detention centres in Moldova, Morocco or Papua New Guinea, as well as Ascension Island, which is more than 4,000 miles from the UK.
Other options that were discussed include detaining asylum seekers on disused oil rigs or ferries; setting up a blockade of small boats to block would-be refugees from crossing the English Channel; or even setting up a wave machine to push boats away from the coastline.
And in the latest revelation from the FT, a leaked document shows Home Office officials approached trade body Maritime UK to look at the possibility of erecting “marine fencing”, or floating walls, to stop sea crossings.
The prime minister’s spokesperson said this week that they did not recognise all the ideas reported in the press, but confirmed the government was looking at Australian-style offshore processing centres as one option. “We’ve been looking at what a whole host of other countries do to inform a plan for the United Kingdom,” they added.
The Australian government’s use of these detention centres is highly controversial and has been criticised by both human-rights groups, the UN and – according to one of the leaked papers – the UK government.
CSW has approached the Cabinet Office for further information on the leak inquiry.