The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Priti Patel)
I would like to update the House on the investigation into the tragic deaths of the 39 migrants discovered last Wednesday in Essex. This morning, the Prime Minister and I visited Thurrock in Essex, to sign the book of condolence and pay our respects to the 39 individuals who died in the most appalling circumstances in trying to reach the United Kingdom. These were people’s sons and daughters, friends and family. As victims of brutal and unscrupulous criminal gangs, they have paid the ultimate price. We have been confronted with a stark reminder of the evils of people smuggling and human trafficking. This trade is a blight on the modern world. For the sake of these victims, and for millions like them, we must do all we can to stamp it out.
I would like to pay tribute once again to the outstanding professionalism shown by all our emergency services—in particular, the swift and professional response from the East of England ambulance service, Essex County Fire and Rescue Service and Essex police, who are leading the ongoing criminal investigation—and our operational partners who are working round the clock to assist the investigation, including the National Crime Agency.
The families of the victims, at this incredibly difficult time, are in all our thoughts and have my full sympathy. Nothing can ever undo the loss that they have suffered. We owe it to them to identify those responsible and ensure that they face the full force of the law. I want to work with those families to ensure that they can bring forward any evidence they have to help solve this appalling crime. With their help, we can bring the perpetrators to justice.
I would like to remind colleagues that this will be a long and meticulous investigation. As I heard today and last week from Essex police, it will involve working with partners overseas and foreign law enforcement agencies and unravelling a threat of criminality that could stretch halfway across the world. We are already working with a range of operational partners to piece together information. The police themselves—Essex police—will need to be given the time and space to do just that, while respecting the dignity of those who have died and of course the privacy of their families. The process of identifying the victims is continuing, and I would like to stress that their nationalities have still not yet been confirmed at this stage.
On Friday, three further people were arrested in connection with the incident. A 38-year-old man and a 38-year-old woman from Warrington were arrested in Cheshire, while a 46-year-old man from Northern Ireland was arrested at Stansted airport. All three were questioned on suspicion of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people, and have now been released on bail.
The driver of the vehicle was 25-year-old Maurice Robinson from Northern Ireland. This morning, he appeared at Chelmsford magistrates court via video link, charged with 39 counts of manslaughter, conspiracy to traffic people, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and money laundering. He has been remanded in custody and is next due to appear at the Old Bailey on 25 November.
Following the devastating discovery of the lorry at Tilbury, the Home Office has set up a dedicated team to co-ordinate an immediate response and a long-term response to this tragedy. I can confirm that Border Force is increasing its presence in Purfleet. It is working alongside Essex police to gather further information regarding this incident. The Home Office will now accelerate our joint intelligence-led operation between the police, the National Crime Agency and immigration enforcement, which aims to disrupt and deter organised crime gangs using refrigerated and hard-sided lorries to smuggle clandestine migrants.
I would like to stress once again that the nationalities of the victims have not been confirmed at this stage, but work is under way to co-ordinate the international response to this incident. I have already spoken to my Belgian counterpart, Minister De Crem, to invigorate the work that is taking place across both countries. I can confirm to the House that, as of today, I have received agreement from the Belgian authorities to deploy extra UK immigration enforcement officers to Zeebrugge. I have also been in contact with other international partners to offer assistance to any foreign nationals who may have been affected by this tragedy.
Last week’s tragedy was the culmination of a broad, more general rise in global migration, but also of organised criminality. This is one of the most pressing issues for the UK, as well as for all our international partners. Illegal migration fuels organised crime, erodes public confidence and, most importantly, endangers the lives of desperate people. The perpetrators conduct their activities under a cloak of secrecy. The motivations that lead people to try to cross borders illegally are broad and complex. They are often among the most vulnerable, and then of course they are further exploited.
It is clear that we and all our partners must enhance our response. All areas of Government have a role to play—whether it is in strengthening our borders and eliminating the pull factors in this country, or in addressing many of the root causes to suppress demand for illegal migration. We already have an illegal migration strategy in place, but as the tragic events last week in Essex have shown, there is much more to do. I will be working across Government and Government Departments this week to plan how we can strengthen our response to the wider migration crisis that led these victims to try to enter the United Kingdom. The organised criminals who drive this practice are dynamic, unscrupulous and highly adaptable, but failing to confront them comes at a terrible human cost. We must be ruthless now in our response.