Internal government projections indicate that the planned new legislation for detaining and deporting individuals arriving in the UK in small boats could incur a cost of £6 billion over the next two years. The Illegal Migration Bill is currently progressing through Parliament, and the Home Office estimates that expenditures on detention facilities, ongoing accommodation, and removals may range from £3 billion to £6 billion. This legislation empowers ministers to deport anyone who arrives in the UK unlawfully and prohibits them from seeking asylum in the country.
The government argues that action is necessary due to the record-breaking influx of people arriving in small boats, and the daily cost of housing asylum seekers in hotels, which currently amounts to nearly £7 million. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made addressing this issue a key priority. However, the bill has faced opposition within the Conservative party and has been heavily criticised in the House of Lords, where it is currently under debate.
To date, ministers have not disclosed the specific costs associated with the bill or the level of investment required. Nevertheless, a senior government source has identified it as one of the primary pressures on public spending. While the Treasury supports the policy, there are concerns among insiders that the costs linked to this contentious bill are escalating.
Sources from the Home Office acknowledge that implementing the bill will be costly and complex, with one admitting that establishing an effective process will be a major logistical challenge. Approximately 45,000 people crossed the English Channel in small boats last year, while the UK currently has the capacity to detain around 2,000 individuals for immigration purposes. Efforts are underway to significantly increase this capacity.
Officials in Whitehall emphasise that various factors come into play, and the purpose of the bill is to act as a deterrent as well. The Home Office hopes that the number of people detained, and consequently the costs, will decrease over time. However, insiders at the Treasury are concerned about the reliability of the deterrent effect as it has not been accurately modelled.
One Home Office source close to the legislation concedes that the deterrent effect is an unknown factor that cannot be predicted. Jon Featonby, chief policy analyst at the Refugee Council, argues that the Home Office recognises that deterrence measures do not work and is preparing to detain numerous desperate individuals who will arrive seeking protection. He suggests that until refugees fleeing violence and persecution are offered a safe pathway to seek asylum, they will continue risking their lives to reach the UK. Featonby asserts that instead of pursuing an expensive and unworkable crackdown, the government should focus on establishing a system that upholds the right to claim asylum while prioritising compassion and control.
Rob McNeil, deputy director of Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, notes that costs are already very high, and processing asylum claims faster would reduce the number of individuals in the system. He questions whether the proposed bill would effectively deter people from attempting to enter the UK in the first place.
The government has stated that it will publish the economic impact assessment of the bill in due course. According to the proposals in the Illegal Migration Bill, individuals who arrive in the UK via an unauthorised boat across the English Channel would be detained and subsequently removed within weeks to either their home country or another deemed safe. Legal challenges are still being faced regarding a plan to send certain asylum seekers to Rwanda to lodge their claims.
If the Illegal Migration Bill is enacted, it will apply retroactively to individuals who arrived illegally in the UK after 7 March 2023. In the short term, a parallel legacy system would remain in place to process the claims of those who arrived on small boats before that date.
The Home Office states that the current annual cost of the asylum system has reached £3 billion. A government spokesperson affirms that the Illegal Migration Bill will help deter the influx of boats by ensuring that people smugglers and illegal migrants understand