Priti Patel is threatening to file a formal complaint after Home Office sources made a “categorically untrue” claim that she oversaw a two-month summer break in finding hotel rooms for asylum seekers.
The former interior minister said she was considering writing to the ministry’s top official after “unfounded” briefings blaming her for decisions made under her successor, Suella Braverman.
The department has been preoccupied with the unfolding crisis at Manston’s processing center in Kent, which at its peak housed 4,100 people despite a capacity of 1,600. The troubled site, where people arriving in small boats in the UK are taken for initial checks, has now been completely cleared, British Home Office sources confirmed on Tuesday.
The spat between the former Home Secretary and her old department comes after two Home Office sources told the Guardian there was a “pause” in the opening of hotels for asylum seekers between mid-June and mid-August.
The alleged hiatus – which meant new accommodation was not signed on to accommodate expected new arrivals in small boats – has been discussed at “senior level” within the department in recent weeks, the sources said.
The Home Office’s failure to find hotels for asylum seekers has been accused of leading to illegal conditions at the Manston processing centre. Sources claim that the government is facing at least three judicial reviews of detainees.
Speaking for the first time about her alleged role in the asylum backlog, Patel said any indication that she had breached her legal obligations by not booking hotels for asylum seekers was false.
She said: “During my tenure, the department complied with its legal obligations regarding the accommodation of asylum seekers in hotels. Any indication that I didn’t is categorically false.
“These claims have previously come from sources within the Home Office. I will consider making a formal complaint to the Permanent Secretary if these unfounded claims continue.”
Her threat comes after weeks of briefing and counter briefings from allies of Patel and Braverman over who is responsible for the failure to find shelter for people who have been crossing the Channel in small boats.
Previously, Whitehall sources were quoted as claiming that Patel was responsible for the backlog. This is the first time sources during her tenure have identified specific dates when officials found no hotels.
Officials fear that after the overcrowding, taxpayers will be held liable for damages running into the tens of millions of pounds. Braverman is preparing to appear before the Select Committee on Home Affairs on Wednesday, where she will be questioned on the legality of the detentions — and whether it was her fault that she was unable to find accommodation.
MPs plan to ask her about reports that she ignored legal advice that asylum seekers were being held for too long and urgently needed to be relocated.
Braverman has denied claims in the Sunday Times that she ignored legal advice that the government was illegally detaining thousands of asylum seekers.
It is clear that Manston will remain open and will be used, if necessary, to conduct initial checks on migrants as more arrive.
There has been a series of controversies at the site, including outbreaks of infectious diseases such as diphtheria, the stranding of asylum seekers in central London and the death of an asylum seeker posted there on Saturday.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Manston is designed as a temporary reception facility, where people are processed before moving on – normally quite quickly.
“Of course there were immediate challenges, especially after the attack on the other center, which caused the number to spike. So you would expect the numbers to be relatively low on a daily basis, because people are quickly referred.”
Asked to comment on claims that Patel had interrupted the search for hotel rooms for asylum seekers, a Home Office spokesperson said: “The use of hotels to house asylum seekers is unacceptable – there are currently over 37,000 asylum seekers in hotels that the UK taxpayer costs. £5.6 million a day.
“Using hotels is a short-term solution and we are working hard with local authorities to find suitable accommodation.”
More than 42,000 people have arrived in the UK so far this year after crossing the Channel in small boats, according to preliminary government figures.