5 April 2023

Sunak must use technology to grip the migration crisis and prove the state can deliver

By Blair Gibbs

After 13 years of Conservative government, the British state has grown while seeming to become less able to act decisively. The inability to stop small boats crossing the Channel is really a symptom of a bigger problem of sclerotic bureaucracy and governmental impotence.

The small boats crisis is a unique challenge to a modern democratic state: a combination of powerful, global market forces that have been successfully exploited by organised crime. The criminal model has remained essentially unchanged since 2018 and yet the state response has been slow, ponderous and ineffective. 

The new Illegal Migration Bill is necessary because the lawyers have made conventional asylum processing and deportation so slow, costly and complicated. And new schemes like the returns agreement with Albania and the Rwanda deportation plan do make up an important part of the response, in terms of providing a deterrent that doesn’t exist currently. 

But these downstream responses are totally insufficient, akin to trying to address crime by hiking sentences and making prison conditions harsher. It would be much better to fight crime by investing upfront in visible policing and use technology to reduce the opportunities for offending – but we are still not approaching the Channel boats crisis in this way.

In my experience, government is twice as slow doing anything as it thinks it will be. It can identify the range of possible policy solutions – all apart from the ones that innovative technology might make possible – and then does a good job of developing them sequentially, as an escalatory response. It keeps the most ‘radical’ (meaning, expensive or legally risky) on ice, only to be wheeled out when a crisis escalates and new ministers need to ratchet up the response.

All this does is make it more likely that radical options will be needed later, and that by then, even those might be insufficient. For example, bringing barges and redundant cruise liners into service to hold illegal asylum arrivals rather than hotels was first talked about internally in 2020, as was repurposing military sites in Kent and Essex.

If these options had been progressed back then, we would have had a credible deterrent policy in operation before this year’s unprecedented surge. Complacency played a part, but this is how the system works – taking years to enact what the public already support, but doing it reluctantly and reactively once the problem has mushroomed, rather than proactively and in order to prevent a bad situation getting worse.

Everything the Government is proposing now is well thought through. The problem is that to save Sunak’s government from defeat next year, it all depends on the ship of state moving much faster than we know it does, and this is even before assuming officials will largely down tools a year from now in anticipation of an autumn election.

Forget the Home Secretary’s new legislation, which will get stuck in the Lords and is unlikely to pass before Tory conference. Even if the first Rwanda flights (under existing law) can get approval to take off this year, the deterrent impact will be small unless the volumes get into the thousands, which is not likely until next year at the earliest. 

Then we have the military sites that still have to go through local planning consent – absurd for what is essentially a national security crisis – and that will involve local MPs and councillors all muscling in, delaying any change of use for months longer.

Essentially, everything conventional that is already on the table will take longer than promised and much longer than the public would expect. And everything unconventional that hasn’t been done before isn’t even being planned for. We need to accelerate the consideration of new approaches using existing resources and novel technology in a few key areas. 

First, we need to concentrate Whitehall resources on the ground and have proper local join-up in Kent. Whether this is Dover or somewhere else, we need co-located teams of police, border force, migration caseworkers and judges, ideally working out of a dedicated government site. The Immigration Minister’s office should be based there, and the Home Secretary should visit every fortnight.

This facility wouldn’t be a pop-up, but should be future-proofed as a permanent Whitehall presence because this issue will require a local footprint for at least the next decade. A group of specialist immigration judges should be rostered to work from a dedicated asylum court that is open at night and at every weekend to swiftly hear cases (if need be we can boost their pensions to compensate).

Second, especially given the lack of dedicated accommodation ready to make the Government’s deterrent policy work, we need better monitoring. It seems incredible that we seem so relaxed about the numbers absconding. Once deportation to Rwanda is an imminent prospect, keeping tabs on Channel migrants will be even harder, and they will have every incentive to disappear into the underground economy, never to be seen again.

A decade ago the Home Office had a plan to roll out GPS tags for tracking migrants who were bailed pending deportation, but nothing came of it. Now we have an emergency and we should be buying 50,000 tags for a much bigger task – keeping all landed Channel migrants under our control until their cases are processed and their deportation flight takes off. Procuring that many tags will take the bureaucracy at least six months – though like most issues, Whitehall proved it could go faster during Covid – so that has to start now, not next spring once annual arrivals have hit a new record high.

Thirdly, in the Channel itself, we need to urgently explore preventative engineering solutions. This is a complex criminal enterprise and if this was any other area of offending, the evidence would tell you that upstream prevention is far more effective than trying to deter criminality with harsher penalties.

Crime prevention in the urban realm is well understood – street lighting, CCTV, alley-gating – but what would it look like in the maritime domain? Can we use acoustic deterrents or flexible barriers to make passage impossible or at least a lot harder and more unpleasant? Our military science establishment should be tasked with inventing and testing prototypes, as rollout of any new technology won’t be simple. 

And lastly, as Nick Timothy has argued, we have to reopen the debate about compulsory ID cards for non-UK citizens. This is proven technology that could be future-proofed with blockchain infrastructure, and it would reduce the pull factor from our domestic labour market. 

It is policies like this – not new but also not really that radical anymore – that are now required to give the state some proper grip. We must use technology to prevent crime and give government the ability to target its resources and enforcement powers effectively to control our borders, prevent organised crime, and deter rule-breaking by a minority of newcomers who want to jump the queue and exploit the UK’s generosity. Otherwise we will end up with the worst of all worlds – a large, flabby state that costs taxpayers more each year but can’t actually deliver what society asks of it.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Blair Gibbs is a former Special Advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.