The home secretary has promised to deliver the “biggest overhaul of our asylum system in decades”, with legislation to be brought forward next year.
Speaking at the Conservative Party’s virtual conference, Priti Patel described the current system as “broken” and vowed to replace it with one that is “firm and fair”.
She said that those who defended the current system – “the traffickers, the do-gooders, the leftie lawyers, the Labour Party” are “defending the indefensible”.
But Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “The Tories talk about a broken immigration system, but they have been in power for a decade and are the political party that broke it.
“Recent experience suggests they have not learned any lessons at all, with unconscionable, absurd proposals about floating walls and creating waves in the English Channel to push back boats and sending people thousands of miles away to process claims.
“The truth is the Tories are devoid of compassion and competence.”
More than 6,000 migrants have arrived in the UK on small boats so far this year, figures show, despite the government previously promising to make the route from France to England “unviable”.
In her speech, the home secretary accused government opponents of propagating a “false narrative that Conservatives do not have a proud history of providing a safe haven to those most in need”.
She said that under Conservative leadership, the UK “has and always will provide sanctuary when the lights are being switched off on people’s liberties”.
“A fair asylum system should provide a safe haven to those fleeing persecution, oppression or tyranny,” Ms Patel said.
“But ours doesn’t. Because our asylum system is fundamentally broken. And we have a responsibility to act.”
The home secretary said the new system would be “fair and compassionate towards those who need our help” and “fair by welcoming people through safe and legal routes”.
But she said it would be “firm” in stopping the “abuse of the broken system”, such as people who “come here illegally making endless legal claims to remain” and speeding up the “removal of those who have no claim for protection”.
“After decades of inaction by successive governments we will address the moral, legal and practical problems with the asylum system. Because what exists now is neither firm nor fair,” Ms Patel continued.
“And I will bring forward legislation to deliver on that commitment next year.
“I will take every necessary step to fix this broken system, amounting to the biggest overhaul of our asylum system in decades.”
The home secretary added: “I will not be complicit in an international criminal trade in asylum seekers, elbowing the most vulnerable to the side.
“Reform the system, prosecute the criminals, protect the vulnerable – that is what a firm, but fair asylum system should look like, and that is what I intend to deliver.”
The home secretary acknowledged that such an overhaul “will take time” and pledged to “accelerate” the government’s response to illegal migration in the meantime.
Ms Patel also said she recognised that the plans would provoke criticism and controversy, saying: “No doubt those who are well-rehearsed in how to play and profit from the broken system will lecture us on their grand theories about human rights.”
But she made clear her determination to stand firm, adding: “If at times it means being unpopular on Twitter. I will bear it.
“If at times it means Tony Blair’s spin doctor mocking my accent. So be it,” she said, referring to an Alastair Campbell tweet mocking her Essex accent and penchant for dropping her Gs.
“And if at times it means Labour Members of Parliament attempting to silence me because I do not conform to their idea of what an ethnic minority woman should stand for. I will stomach it.
“Because as Conservatives, we do not measure the depth of our compassion in two hundred and eighty characters on Twitter, but in the actions we take and the choices we make.”
The Home Office’s top civil servant said earlier this week that “everything is on the table” when it comes to “improving” the UK’s asylum system.
Appearing in front of MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee, permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft repeatedly refused to deny reports that the government has considered sending asylum seekers to isolated islands 4,000 miles from the UK while their applications are processed.
He also refused to answer direct questions on whether disused ferries could be turned into processing centres.