Operation Isotrope: the use of the military to counter migrant crossings: Government response to the Committee’s fourth report of Session 2021-22

First Special Report of Session 2022–23

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First Special Report

On 11 March 2022 the Defence Committee published its Fourth Report of Session 2021–22, “Operation Isotrope: the use of the military to counter migrant crossings” (HC 1069). The Government’s response was received on 11 May 2022, and is appended to this report

Appendix: Government Response

Government response to the Defence Committee report “Operation Isotrope: the use of the military to counter migrant crossings” (HC 1069)

The Government thanks the House of Commons Defence Committee for its inquiry “Operation Isotrope: the use of the military to counter migrant crossings” set out in the Committee’s report (HC 1069), published on 11 March 2022.

Our formal response to the Committee’s Report recommendations and conclusions is set out below. The Committee’s findings are highlighted in bold, with the Government’s response set out in plain text. For ease of reference, the paragraph numbering in brackets refers to the order in which they are presented in the Committee’s Report.

Introduction

On 14 April 2022, the Prime Minister announced that the Ministry of Defence had commenced primacy for the operational response to small boat migration in the English Channel. This will be undertaken under Operation ISOTROPE which will assist the Border Force in optimising existing processes, assets and expertise to bring small boat numbers under manageable levels, enabling continued public confidence in this Government’s response during a particularly challenging period for attempted crossings. A funding package of an additional £50 million has been agreed which will see Defence primacy operate until 31 January 2023. It will be used to enhance a number of surface and surveillance capabilities and bring them under a unified command structure. This will enable the MOD to monitor migrant crossings and, alongside the Border Force, ensure that those arriving on UK shores do so safely, and in a controlled manner, before being passed promptly into the wider immigration system.

The Government recognises that the power to deter individuals from making this perilous journey relies on the effectiveness of the entire immigration system and the ability of the UK to break the business model of the people smugglers who trade in human misery. Military primacy is one element of the Government’s plan to overhaul the domestic asylum framework and will strengthen Her Majesty’s Government’s (HMG) ability to ensure safety of life at sea whilst preventing individuals landing in the UK on their own terms. Reform of the Government’s wider approach and policy, including law enforcement against people traffickers and the dissuading effect of immigration reforms such as the new migration and economic development partnership announced by the Prime Minister on 14 April 2022, aims to disrupt the business models of criminal people traffickers and ensure that our asylum system continues to support those in genuine need.

Committee conclusions

1. The announcement of this policy appears to have been made prematurely. When the Government has been asked for details, it has consistently responded that these were being worked out. Announcing a policy before finalising the details is bad practice, particularly when that policy area is so sensitive. We question why such a premature announcement was made. (Paragraph 4)

On 14 April, the Prime Minister announced major reforms to UK immigration policy, including the Economic and Migration Development Partnership with Rwanda as well as confirming military primacy for small boats migration in the English Channel.

It is not uncommon for strategic objectives to be set out by governments in advance of the policy detail. Indeed, prior to the Prime Minister’s announcement, we had already confirmed the initial policy intent and that it was part of a wider package of immigration reforms that was being developed. This was confirmed by the Minister for the Armed Forces responding to an Urgent Question in the House of Commons on 18 January. The MOD committed to updating the Houses of Parliament once the policy and operational detail had been finalised and fulfilled this commitment by laying a Written Ministerial Statement on 19 April.

2. In line with our general policy on shipbuilding, we call on the Home Office to ensure that any new vessels are built in British yards, to ensure national capacity is maintained. (Paragraph 11)

The Government notes the Committee’s recommendation. The 11 new Border Force vessels are part of the 30 Year Cross-Government Shipbuilding Pipeline announced in the National Shipbuilding Strategy Refresh on 10 March 2022. The National Shipbuilding Office, which is responsible for delivering the UK’s National Shipbuilding Strategy ambition and will seek to maximise UK content wherever possible, is working closely with the Home Office and Border Force on the vessel replacement programme. The 30-year pipeline set out in the refreshed Strategy captures over 150 vessels needed by Government which, when combined with wider potential commercial and export opportunities, will provide significant opportunities for the UK shipbuilding enterprise.

3. A successful military strategy requires clear ends, ways and means. The ends (or in this case the objectives) are anything but. The MOD appears to regard its objective as ensuring that no migrant lands on their own terms, but the Home Office sees the objective as deterrence. Whilst these are not mutually exclusive, nor do they necessarily reinforce each other. The MoD’s objective is in any case at best incoherent, since the migrants’ over-riding aim is to land in the UK, regardless of whether or not on their own terms. (Paragraph 52)

The Government believes the Committee’s conclusion is premature in that it was made before the full policy was announced. The Nationalities and Borders Act and the policy of third country processing will change the dynamic in the Channel. Migrants will not want to be intercepted in the way that, as the Committee notes, they currently are. Thus, the risk of interception is a deterrent and that deterrence is all the greater the more successful the maritime effort to ensure that no migrants reach the UK on their own terms.

4. We are seriously concerned by the lack of a clear endpoint for this operation. Restoring public confidence in the immigration system is a task at which numerous governments have failed. It is not a task Defence is equipped to undertake. The MOD has its own policy failings which it needs to remedy – it should not be made responsible for the failings of other government departments as well. (Paragraph 56)

The Government notes the Committee’s conclusions. Current planning is for Defence to retain primacy of the UK’s operational response until January 2023, at which point the operational requirement and financing arrangements will be reviewed.

5. We recommend that the Home Office and the MOD agree realistic indicators of success and explain them to both Houses of Parliament. Furthermore, we recommend that an agreed date for the operation to be handed over to the Border Force is published, with the option of extension if so required. This cannot be an open-ended deployment, occupying scarce Royal Naval vessels and personnel. (Paragraph 57)

The Government disagrees with the Committee’s view on the deployment of ‘scarce’ naval resources. The Batch 1 Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) and P2000 coastal patrol craft are permanently assigned to a range of duties in Home Waters including support to Border Force. Operation ISOTROPE has no impact on the availability of Destroyers, Frigates or Batch 2 OPVs for deployment overseas or in defence of our homeland from peer adversaries. Whilst the commitment is expected to last until January 2023, it can be maintained indefinitely without any significant impact on wider Royal Navy activity.

6. We believe that the Government ought to reconsider its refusal to publish the details of strategic and operational responsibility. This confusion around where responsibility for the policy lies is compounded by the fact that, as noted above, the solution to this issue does not lie at sea and therefore is outside the control of the Royal Navy (and indeed the MOD), despite its assuming primacy of the maritime operation. The fact that, six weeks on from the initial announcement, the Government is still unable (or unwilling) to answer questions about this issue does not inspire confidence. (Paragraph 60)

The Government considers that the overall division of responsibility is clear: the Home Secretary will retain overall accountability for the Government’s illegal migration strategy, whilst the Defence Secretary is assuming responsibility for and control of the operational response to irregular migration by small boats in the Channel.

In practice, this means that Defence will be responsible for ensuring small boat migrants in the Channel are identified, intercepted and managed into the wider immigration pathway in a controlled manner. Once the individual has undergone initial processing, the Home Office is responsible for further management of individuals into longer term accommodation or where required, removal from the UK.

7. A public disagreement between two great offices of state, played out in the House and on Twitter, is deeply unedifying. If one of the objectives is to restore public confidence then this disagreement has done the opposite and the operation has failed before it has even started. We question whether announcing the policy before agreeing the detail was a wise move or rather one borne of desperation. We hope that lessons will be learned from this experience. (Paragraph 63)

The Government notes the Committee’s view on this matter, though believes it is perfectly reasonable to set out overarching policy aims and strategy in advance of the full details. The Ministry of Defence, Home Office and others have been working closely together on a single cross-Government response to small boats migration in the Channel and everyone is united in the shared ambition to resolve this difficult issue.

8. It is clear that if Royal Navy vessels are to be committed to the operation in the Channel, some existing commitments will be given up. The Government ought to be clear, both with Parliament and the public what it is prioritising this task against and which commitments will be unfulfilled as a result. (Paragraph 69)

The Government disagrees with the Committee. There is no significant impact whatsoever on wider Royal Navy or Army activity. The assets made available to Operation ISOTROPE are already permanently assigned to Home Waters.

9. The Defence budget (despite its recent uplift and multi-year commitment) is already inadequate. Adding responsibility for immigration without a further uplift in the budget takes scarce resources from an already overstretched Department. We do not understand why this operation is not being treated as a MACA request and accordingly resourced by the Home Office. (Paragraph 76)

A £50 million package has been agreed between the Treasury, Home Office and the Ministry of Defence to enable the delivery of military primacy until early 2023, at which point the requirement and resourcing will be reviewed.

10. Operation ISOTROPE potential to cause reputational damage to the Royal Navy (and even UK Defence as a whole) is significant. That risk comes from a number of areas: those who believe that this is not a defence task (but rather ought to be carried out by civil authorities); those who believe that the Royal Navy ought to have other, more pressing priorities; and those who believe that the Royal Navy is ineffective in the role, instead becoming a ‘taxi service’ for those crossing the Channel. This reputational damage could likely be countered by clear messaging of what the expectations are upon Royal Navy assets in the Channel and cross-Government agreement of the strategic objective of the operation. However, we have not seen any evidence that that will happen. (Paragraph 79)

The Government accepts that countering small boats migration is a complex and challenging problem that requires a ‘whole of Government’ response. In announcing the policy, the MOD has been clear on the Royal Navy’s role and boundaries. Information on small boat crossings is published daily on GOV.UK.1

11. The manner in which this decision was announced leaves a lot to be desired. The confusion around the ways and means which will be used to achieve the strategic objective (let alone the strategic objective itself) is unhelpful and does not lend itself to effective scrutiny, particularly when Ministers provide the bare minimum of information. This is compounded by the fact that, more than six weeks after the decision had been announced and we had requested more information from them, we have not received any evidence, written or oral from either of the Departments involved. (Paragraph 80)

The Government believes the Committee’s point on the timing of the announcement is disingenuous. The policy was announced on 14 April 2022 by the Prime Minister. The ‘announcement’ to which the Committee refers was an answer to an Urgent Question by the Committee Chair. It would have been wrong to mislead the House and claim that planning was not underway when it was.

12. Furthermore, this operation distracts from other Defence tasks, which is a particular concern given the shortfalls we identified in our recent Report ‘We’re going to need a bigger Navy’. The operation will likely have long-term impacts on training, personnel leave allocation and asset maintenance. It is also unclear why Op Isotrope is not being funded under the normal MACA arrangements. The reputational risk to the Royal Navy, particularly if this becomes a long-term operation, is significant. We can see few positives and many negatives should the Royal Navy assume primacy as suggested. (Paragraph 81)

13. In short, the Government has not attempted to persuade us that Operation Isotrope is anything but an ill-defined policy, prematurely announced. The best case scenario for the Royal Navy is that it will leave with its reputation unharmed: there is no prospect of leaving with its reputation enhanced. (Paragraph 82)

Defence primacy for tackling small boats migration in the Channel is one part of the Government’s significant overhaul of the immigration system. On 14 April 2022, the Government announced its New Plan for Immigration which seeks to control and protect the UK’s borders from dangerous and illegal migration while continuing to help those in desperate need. A key element of these reforms are the new migration and economic development partnerships, such as that established with Rwanda, which will see those who enter the UK illegally being considered for relocation to Rwanda to have their asylum claim considered and given a new opportunity to resettle and rebuild their lives.

In terms of small boats migration, the Government is clear that the continuing large numbers of migrants attempting dangerous Channel crossings is unacceptable. We have seen tragic loss of life in recent months as unprepared and determined people attempt this perilous journey, frequently spurred on by exploitative and abhorrent criminal gangs.

The Home Office and the Ministry of Defence have worked closely on this issue for many years seeking to limit these illegal migrant flows, but despite success in ensuring the safety of life at sea we have seen the levels of migrant flows remains stubbornly far too high. And so a step change is needed. With the Ministry of Defence taking operational primacy in the Channel, the Royal Navy will undertake an enhanced role. Operation ISOTROPE will see Defence fulfilling the control and coordination role for Defence and Border Force assets engaged in counter-migration operations, and enhanced surface and surveillance capabilities to increase HMG’s ability to identify and intercept small boats and ensure all those arriving in the UK do so in a managed and controlled manner. This will ensure genuine refugees being properly cared for, and those who should not be here processed promptly and where appropriate removed from the UK.

In recognition of predictions of unprecedented numbers of small boat crossing attempts this year, an additional financial package of £50 million has been agreed with the Treasury and Home Office to ensure the capability uplifts and enhancements required can be delivered. We also expect that Defence may be involved in areas which are more clearly aligned with Home Office responsibilities (such as accommodation for longer-term processing) and which, as the Committee notes, will be appropriate to manage through a Military Aid to the Civil Authorities (MACA) approach.

At every stage the MOD has made clear that further information would be made available to Parliament and the public once operational details had been finalised. This remains the case and as such we would like to extend the offer for a further private briefing on Departmental responsibilities and operational arrangements as the operation matures.