The union representing Border Force staff has announced it is taking part in a legal challenge against a plan by Priti Patel to push back small boats in the Channel.
The news that the home secretary’s own staff are participating in a legal challenge against the high-profile policy will be a significant blow to Patel as she faces criticism from fellow Conservatives for failing to get a grip on the crisis.
On Wednesday, 27 people drowned after their dinghy sank in the Channel – the largest loss of life recorded since the small boat crisis began. The number of refugees crossing to seek sanctuary in the UK has reached record levels, with more than 23,000 attempting the journey so far this year. The poor weather conditions and plummeting temperatures have not deterred refugees from trying to cross the Channel.
The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) has joined Care4Calais and one other charity in their legal fight to prevent the pushback plans from going ahead. PCS says it has not ruled out taking steps to disrupt the policy if the home secretary insists on proceeding with it.
The loss of dozens of lives in the Channel this week has increased pressure on the government to drop its plans to make Border Force staff prevent boats from reaching the UK by physically pushing the boats back.
PCS and the two charities it is bringing the legal challenge with are demanding Patel publish the details of the policy and the legal basis for it.
The government is required to respond by this Monday. If it refuses to abandon the policy, PCS and the charities could launch judicial review proceedings imminently. Other organisations, including Channel Rescue and the charity Freedom from Torture, have launched separate legal challenges against the pushback plans.
Late on Saturday, Patel warned that failing to increase cooperation with Europe could cause “even worse scenes” in the Channel this winter than the capsizing that killed 27 people.
She vowed to “continue to push” for improvement next week, despite being disinvited by the French from a meeting of European colleagues to tackle the migration crisis.
Interior ministers from France, the Netherlands, Belgium and the European Commission are to meet in Calais on Sunday to discuss small boat crossings.
Patel’s invitation was withdrawn after Boris Johnson angered Emmanuel Macron by publicly sharing a letter he had written to the French president on how to deal with the issue.
The Guardian revealed last Sunday that the PCS union was considering legal action and that the Home Office had received advice that the odds of successfully defending a legal challenge against the pushback plans were less than 30%.
The PCS general secretary, Mark Serwotka, said: “The pushback policy being pursued by the home secretary is unlawful, unworkable and above all morally reprehensible.
“Our Border Force members are aghast at the thought they will be forced to implement such a cruel and inhumane policy. Migrants who are trying to reach this country should be allowed to so via safe routes so that their claims can be assessed here. If the government does not abandon this appalling approach, we will pursue all legal avenues including a judicial review.
“PCS will not rule out all forms of industrial action, including disrupting the implementation of the pushback policy if the home secretary insists on going ahead.”
Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, said: “We are incredibly proud to be joined in this action by PCS. Not only will this challenge represent the interest of desperate people forced to risk their lives, it will also represent those who may well be forced to implement it.”
The PCS union and Care4Calais are being represented by the public law department at Duncan Lewis solicitors, which has brought many human rights challenges against Home Office policies.
The Home Office said:“We are seeing an unacceptable rise in dangerous Channel crossings and as part of our ongoing operational response, we continue our work to safely prevent such illegal crossings. The health, safety and wellbeing of our officers is paramount when undertaking their operational duties, which is why we provide extensive training and ensure all operational procedures comply and are delivered in accordance with domestic and international law.
“Last summer we held a formal consultation on new maritime tactics with the unions – we continue to work closely with all the trade unions and welcome their ongoing feedback.”