Priti Patel was embroiled in a war of words with the French on Thursday as she was accused of “fake news” over her claims France was failing to turn back Channel migrants.
Pierre-Henri Dumont, a Republican MP for Calais, said her claim to MPs yesterday that her claim the French were failing to turn back illegal migrant boats even when they were just 250 yards from their shore was not true.
“We are stopping boats. It’s fake news to say we are not,” Mr Dumont told the BBC’s Radio Four Today programme.
He said he was “surprised” at her comments given that she “seemed really impressed” with the resources the French were deploying to prevent migrants crossing when she visited Calais on Sunday.
“It is a bit surprising because she has two speeches - one when she is in Calais with our minister for interior affairs and one when she is in London with MPs. It’s a bit surprising actually,” he added.
The Home Secretary told MPs on the home affairs committee that she had had “difficult” conversations with the French who were refusing to intercept the boats even in their own waters despite a UK Government assessment that it was legal under maritime law to return them to France.
She said Britain had offered to work with the French on joint exercises at sea to see how the boats could be returned to France safely when the migrants might resist.
She revealed Border Force officers had already conducted its own exercises at sea with the Navy to develop ways of picking up boats and returning them to France. Among measures being trialled are nets that the military deploy to clog propellers and bring the boats to a standstill.
However, Mr Dumont disputed her claims. “Yesterday we stopped three boats. We brought back into Calais and Boulogne 40 migrants. Every day we are bringing migrants back onto our seaside. It is not true say we are doing nothing. It’s quite the opposite actually,” he said.
He said the French were deploying more and more police officers and troops on its coast every day and night.
However, he added that the beaches were “very, very large” and “we can’t have 2,000-3,000 police officers every day every night, not at this point because we have other issues as you have other issues.”
Asked about a legal wrangle over whether the French were failing to intercept because of an overzealous application of maritime law, Mr Dumont said the French were applying the rules correctly.
“We are applying maritime law. There are 30 kilometres between France and Britain. When migrants reach the 15 kilometres, they are asking for help because they know when they are helped at that point they will be brought back to Dover, not to Calais,” he said.
“It’s not a question of bilateral agreement. It’s not a question of EU membership. It is applying the law of the sea.”
Asked by MPs on Wednesday if French authorities have powers to intercept boats in French waters, because officials there claimed they do not, Ms Patel said: "That's absolutely right and that is what we are working to achieve, right down to sharing legal advice, legal guidance in terms of maritime laws.
"A lot of this is governed by maritime laws and the French authorities' interpretations of what they can and can't do at sea.
"It is our advice that they can go ahead and do that. That has been part of the discussions that we have been having with the French authorities throughout the entire coronavirus crisis."
Asked whether the "disagreement" over maritime laws is the basis of the problem as well as the terms of the Cherbourg agreement - which the committee heard is an informal agreement to intercept crossings at sea and repatriate boats back to France - she replied: "That is absolutely right."
Ms Patel said the agreement has been "inappropriately" described by colleagues as a "gentleman's agreement" but added: "These agreements are here to stand the test of time and to be operationalised."
She said she had been "making the point repeatedly to French counterparts", claiming the UK has offered to work with authorities at sea in joint exercises to demonstrate how boats can be returned safely.
She added: "It is equally important, along with maritime law, that we actually prevent loss of life at sea."
Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent in the last 10 years by her predecessors and on bilateral arrangements, Ms Patel said, adding that she wants to see more data and intelligence-sharing but suggested UK systems are "slightly more agile" than those on the Continent.
"In France, the system is not geared up to work in that way - that is part of the challenge that we have," she said.
Her comments come just days after she hailed a "new operational approach" to dealing with crossings after meeting French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin and agreeing to set up a Franco-British intelligence cell.