Suella Braverman is facing five legal challenges over a crisis at Manston processing centre but has claimed that people seeking asylum in small boats and their smugglers are to blame for the chaos.
The home secretary told MPs that legislation planned to tighten the asylum system would not come before parliament this year. Her most senior civil servant has not yet signed off a £140m deal to send asylum seekers to Rwanda as “value for money”, it emerged.
The disclosures came at a fractious hearing of the home affairs select committee on Wednesday, the day before the anniversary of the deaths of 27 people whose boat sank in the Channel as they sought refuge in the UK.
Later, in the Commons, a Conservative MP suggested that the immigration minister Robert Jenrick should resign, accusing him of not having “the first clue” of how to relocate asylum seekers.
By the end of last month, more than 4,000 people seeking refuge were housed in the Kent processing centre, which was designed to hold only 1,600 and to process them within 24 hours.
Some had been there for more than four weeks, in potential breach of Home Office rules and the law. Infectious diseases broke out and one person died while being detained. Insiders say any breach could cost the government tens of millions of pounds in compensation.
Braverman said the Home Office has received five pre-action letters regarding Manston, which could lead to judicial reviews examining who was to blame for allowing a buildup of asylum seekers and a failure to move them on to hotels.
Home Office sources claimed on Tuesday that the former home secretary Priti Patel was responsible for “pausing” the acquisition of hotels during the summer – a claim that prompted Patel to threaten a formal complaint about hostile briefings from the department.
Asked who was to blame for the backlog of cases at Manston, Braverman said she did not want to “point the finger of blame” at any home secretary.
“I tell you who’s at fault, it’s very clear who’s at fault, it’s the people who are breaking our rules, coming here illegally, exploiting vulnerable people and trying to reduce the generosity of the British people – that’s who’s at fault,” she said.
The former military airfield near Ramsgate was empty on Tuesday after everyone held there was moved into hotels.
Braverman said new legislation to combat Channel crossings was unlikely to come before parliament before Christmas. “That may slip, I have to say,” she said.
The Home Office’s permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft, said he had not changed his view over Boris Johnson’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, despite keeping it under “constant review”. “The circumstances have not changed sufficiently for me to change my judgment, which, from April, was that we did not have evidence it would be value for money,” he said.
The Conservative MP Tim Loughton told the home secretary there was a “shortage of safe and legal routes” available to avoid the need for small boat crossings.
Asked how a 16-year-old orphaned refugee from Africa who was not eligible under existing schemes could legally reach the UK to claim asylum, Braverman could not provide an option and suggested that he could claim asylum in the UK once he arrived.
“How could I arrive in the UK if I didn’t have permission to get on to an aircraft legally to arrive in the UK?” Loughton said. Braverman then referred him to her colleagues.
Rycroft told Loughton that the 16-year-old orphan might be able to engage with the United Nations high commission for refugees, adding: “But I accept that there are some countries where it would not be possible.”
In response, the UNHCR said it was able to refer a limited number of refugees to the UK each year, and this year 1,066 refugees from around the world had successfully applied. “Most refugees simply have no access to a safe regular pathway to the UK,” the body wrote on Twitter.
Jenrick faced calls to resign from his fellow Tory Philip Hollobone, who criticised the way the Home Office is relocating people from Manston to hotels without listening to safety and community concerns. “The situation is now so bad and chaotic that the minister should consider his position,” the MP for Kettering said.
There are now more than 40,000 asylum seekers staying in more than 100 hotels across the UK, at a cost of about £7m a day.