The Home Office has defended its right to seize the mobile phones of asylum seekers who cross the Channel in small boats, telling the high court it helps officials gather evidence about the people smugglers who organise such journeys.
In a four-day judicial review, three asylum seekers are claiming that the home secretary unlawfully operated an unpublished, secret, blanket policy to seize phones from small-boat arrivals. Lawyers for the home secretary said that while they accepted some aspects of the policy that operated in 2020 were unlawful, the policy to seize phones from some people who arrived and instruct them to provide pin numbers to unlock data, including phone numbers, emails and photos, was lawful.
The policy instructing newly arrived asylum seekers to hand over phones and pin numbers operated between April and November 2020. It is likely to have involved the confiscation of thousands of mobile phones, the court heard in evidence earlier this week.
Sir James Eadie QC, representing the home secretary, Priti Patel, told the court on Thursday that this was a case about clandestine Channel crossings and attempts to circumvent proper border controls.
He said the crossings were putting lives at risk “in a manner that is grotesquely irresponsible” and that there was the very highest public interest in collating evidence obtained from phones that was likely to lead to the identification of the organisers so they could be prosecuted if appropriate.
Eadie said there was a basis for phone seizures under current legislation “where the relevant thresholds were met”.
The Home Office had initially denied the existence of this policy but later confirmed it.
Eadie acknowledged that the Home Office had breached its duty of candour in relation to initially failing to admit that the unpublished policy to seize phones existed. He said it was “extremely unfortunate” and apologised.
Alan Payne QC, also acting for the home secretary, said that a “reasonable grounds threshold” exists in legislation that permits items to be seized in relation to immigration and non-immigration offences.
The Home Office has conceded that the way the seizure policy was previously implemented was unlawful in some respects due to its blanket, unpublished nature. But Payne argued it was lawful in its current format – where fewer phones of arriving people are seized, and specific individuals, such those who helm the dinghies, are targeted.
The hearing continues.