Home Office stupidity is hindering the Ukrainians’ efforts to defend their homeland

A fisherman sails his boat on the Dnipro River as black smoke rises from an oil reserve in Kherson
A fisherman sails his boat on the Dnipro River as black smoke rises from an oil reserve in Kherson

On a bonny day this week, we climbed the hill which looks down on the port of Dover. The sunlit coast of France was clearly visible, just the sort of weather beloved of illegal immigrants crossing from France. Indeed, 534 of them – a record – crossed in similar conditions last Sunday.

But as we walked, we were mostly looking in the opposite direction, working up through mud, brambles, trees and wild garlic to a double fence, its outer row formed of high metal spikes, its inner row of wire. In between the two, security cameras peered at us.

Behind this perimeter, we knew, lay the enormous premises of GXO Logistics, a company which, its website says, “engineers faster, smarter, leaner supply chains”. What interested us, however, was a supply chain which, thanks to the Government, is not faster, smarter or leaner, but is simply not allowed.

Some kind readers may remember that, in this space three months ago, I told the story of Ukraine’s intrepid efforts to take the fight across the Dnipro river, an area of Ukraine which Vladimir Putin’s armies currently occupy.

Since last year, Ukrainian forces have maintained three bridgeheads there. They have been able to do this only by ferrying men and munitions through the narrow channels of the great river’s delta and tributaries. They also bring back the wounded and, sad to say, the dead.

For all this, they need light, small, shallow-bottomed craft, as inconspicuous as possible to evade Russian attention. Russian air superiority makes the journeys extremely dangerous. To procure such boats, and the engines which power them, Ukraine needs the world’s help.

In this effort, the British people have been more generous than any other. Organisations such as MissionUkraine.uk – with which I travelled in Ukraine last year to hand over a SUV repurposed as a front-line military ambulance – are helped by British donors and volunteers to get such boats cheap, drive them out to Ukraine and there make them river-worthy before delivering them to the military units.

The Ukrainians’ idea, expressed with historical panache, is to turn the “small boats” of the illegal immigrants into the “little ships” of the resistance to Russia. After all, none of the boats arriving in Britain goes back: they are the people-traffickers’ one-way taxi service.

The Border Force and the Home Office have no use for them. Why not give them to a friend who desperately needs them?

Rishi Sunak keeps saying that Britain will “do whatever it takes” to ensure Ukrainian victory. Here is something which, from a British point of view, takes very little. All we need to do is hand them over.

Yet the Home Office is curiously cagey, not wanting to say what happens to the small boats or even where they are. Which was why we – our photographer, Paul Grover, Dmytro Tomkin from MissionUkraine and I – were climbing up above Dover and why, when we got to the double fence, Paul sent up a drone.

By that means, we found several rows, neatly laid out and labelled, of what we were looking for. Through the fences, I counted 20 RIBs, 62 inflatable boats (all deflated and folded) and 131 engines.

This was a big haul, but nevertheless a small proportion of what must have accumulated after dumping almost 30,000 people on our shores last year and more than 5,000 this year even before the summer migration has started.

The one thing we do know is that the Home Office firmly rejects the “little ships” scheme. Since it was first publicly floated in January, several MPs and many individuals and organisations have written to the Home Office asking it to release the boats.

Yesterday, the Home Secretary’s spokesman said that the Ukrainian government has not asked for the boats. That is untrue. It did so, via its embassy, in February. Ukraine also offered to take the boats at its own risk.

There was some official muttering at first about how the vessels needed to be kept for evidence in criminal trials. This seems unlikely since the people-traffickers, working abroad, are almost never caught. That excuse has died away. The stated reason for rejection has now boiled down to one thing.

Here, from a letter to an MP, is the standard reply from Michael Tomlinson, the minister of state for countering illegal migration: “I am sorry to say that the flimsy rubber inflatables used by migrants to attempt crossings of the Channel are not seaworthy. In fact, these vessels are lethally dangerous craft which endanger the lives of anyone using them. We have seen at least one fatal incident per month … involving these small boats, and I have seen their unseaworthiness myself.”

Mr Tomlinson goes on: “The idea that these boats could be repurposed by the Ukrainians to ferry wounded soldiers across the Dnipro, while well intended, simply would not work. These boats are dangerous for fit and healthy people to use, let alone those whose condition would prevent them from reacting when the boats inevitably flounder.”

(I think Mr Tomlinson means “founder”.)

I said above that the Home Office rejection was firm. This letter shows that it is also ignorant and insulting.

Who knows better than the Ukrainians what such boats can and cannot do? Mr Tomlinson tells them that they would not work for ferrying the wounded. He seems unaware that such boats, supplied by others, have been doing exactly that for months. The Ukrainian forces need them because, as I say, there is no alternative.

At any one time, they could use a total of about 900 boats, but they have not mustered nearly that number yet. They know exactly how perilous it is to travel in these small craft. Indeed, after three or four weeks’ service, each boat is scrapped because of damage from bullets and shrapnel.

If Mr Tomlinson would only see a Ukrainian delegation, they might ask him politely how else he would suggest getting the wounded out of the front line.

Besides, they can short-circuit his objections about seaworthiness. They know the boats are not yet fit for the Dnipro (though, by the way, the river crossing is a 20th of the width of the English Channel). The job of organisations like MissionUkraine.uk is to repair and adapt the boats and engines for their new purpose.

Naturally, they will reject all boats which cannot be so repurposed. They know what will work for them. Might not their judgment be better than Mr Tomlinson’s?

These ministerial letters are so wilfully stupid that I cannot believe they are setting out the full reasons for rejection. The replies feel like bureaucratic pig-headedness about health and safety which cannot possibly apply when fighting the Russians.

We are sadly used to such attitudes, of course, but what is so puzzling is that the Government is failing to look at this issue politically. After many months of pushing, even the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, belatedly agreed to allow Ulez scrappage cars to be sent to Ukraine. Why are the Tories lagging him?

Here, staring the Government in the face, is a virtually cost-free opportunity to assist our beleaguered ally and turn to good use the detritus of its failed attempts to stop illegal migration.

The hostility of the Home Office and the total inertia of the Home Secretary, James Cleverly, are truly bewildering.