An immigration minister has said he feels a “huge weight of responsibility” after what has been described as the “worst-recorded migrant tragedy in the Channel”.
Tom Pursglove told members of Parliament and peers the deaths of at least 27 people, including young children, was “unthinkable” and “horrendous”.
Asked by the Joint Committee on Human Rights if the government feels “any sense of responsibility” for the deaths, Mr Pursglove replied: “I feel a huge weight of responsibility as the minister for tackling illegal migration. And I think that all of us in this House feel an enormous weight of responsibility on this issue.
“And I feel that there is a profound duty to put these evil criminal gangs — that are responsible for this human misery, that treat individuals as cargo and are only interested in making a profit — out of business once and for all and to render this route unviable.
“All of the work that I’m doing is aimed in that direction and is working towards that outcome.”
He added that the event was a “dreadful tragedy” and “unthinkable".
“The thought that women and children and men lost their lives in this way is horrendous. And for me, that only stiffens my resolve to work as hard as I possibly can to play my part, to render the route unviable with the ultimate objective in my mind of preserving life,” he said.
Chairwoman Harriet Harman had opened the session saying the committee was hearing evidence “in the shadow of tragedy”, and added: “At least 27 people died last Wednesday in the worst-recorded migrant tragedy in the Channel.
“Among the dead were 17 men, seven women and three children. Reports are that one of the women was pregnant, while one of the children was just a little girl.
“Many of the dead appear to have been Kurds from Iraq and Iran and some may have been Arabs and Afghans, as well as other Iranians. And I think we all — the minister, officials, ourselves — we all have those people in our thoughts.”
Ms Harman repeatedly asked for confirmation on whether those on the boat had called the UK authorities for help as they came into difficulty and, if so, what the response had been.
Daniel O’Mahoney, the Home Office’s Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, said there were “multiple migrant boats” in the water at the time and the coastguard responded to “every single one of them”.
“I can’t tell you with any certainty whether we definitely received a call from that boat or not … if the people from that boat had called the UK authorities, I can tell you that we definitely responded to that call,” he said.
Describing how the incident unfolded, he added: “The French authorities alerted us to the presence of that boat, which had been damaged and there were people in the water, at 12.58.
“At which point, it was well within French territorial waters in the French search and rescue zone. We responded immediately to that, the coastguard sent a helicopter, we made all of our … boats available.”
The hearing comes after the committee said the government should scrap plans to turn back migrant boats at sea because they “endanger lives” and are likely to breach human rights laws.
It said pushbacks are “not the solution” to curbing Channel crossings and would “do the opposite of what is required to save lives”, with Ms Harman later describing the tactic as a “very controversial measure”.
Asked if it was true that the government already knows the powers are unworkable, Mr Pursglove said: “The maritime tactics to which you refer have been signed off by ministers. We consider that they are safe and legal.
“I am clear that we will always act in accordance with international maritime law.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Home Secretary Priti Patel tabled a series of amendments to the Nationality and Borders Bill — the proposed reforms to asylum and immigration laws currently going through Parliament — including a legal exemption to protect lifeboat crews and other organisations from being prosecuted for rescuing migrants in the Channel.
The bill would make it a criminal offence to help an asylum seeker gain entry to the UK.
A clause has been added which says someone cannot be prosecuted for acts carried out on behalf of, or co-ordinated by, the coastguard and there is a defence by demonstrating those brought ashore had been in “danger or distress at sea”.
Meanwhile, Number 10 insisted Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron had a close “working relationship” following a diplomatic spat over how best to tackle the Channel migrant crisis.
The prime minister’s official spokesman was asked about the relationship between the two leaders following the former French ambassador Sylvie Bermann joking that ties had not been as bad since Waterloo.
Asked if Mr Johnson and Mr Macron were friends, the spokesman said: “The prime minister’s been asked about this on a number of occasions and has talked about his close relationship … working relationship with President Macron.”