People smugglers could be handed life sentences under plans to ramp up penalties in an effort to stop migrants crossing the Channel.
At present, the maximum sentence for people smuggling is 14 years in prison. The Times reported that Priti Patel wants to lengthen jail terms because of her concerns that the average sentence received is three years.
The Home Office said ministers would set out further details “in the coming weeks”. A spokesman said: “Whilst criminal gangs continue to put lives at risk it is right we consider every option to stop their exploitation of people.”
It comes as 87 people arrived in Dover on Saturday, after making the dangerous journey in four small boats. All were tested for Covid-19, with one receiving a positive result, the Home Office said. French authorities also prevented two attempted crossings involving a further 51 people on the same day.
It means 531 people have made the crossing this year, 40% more than the same point in 2020, when there was a record of 8,417 crossings in the year.
The home secretary has come under fire in recent weeks after it was revealed that former military barracks being used to house asylum seekers had been badly affected by coronavirus outbreaks. The barracks did not “meet acceptable standards of accommodation” when it was surveyed seven years ago.
Napier barracks near Folkestone, Kent had at least 197 positive cases of Covid-19 this year alone – more than 50% of its resident population at its peak of 380. Asylum seekers claimed facilities had been dirty or broken for months.
The Home Office has also been urged to investigate the network of hotels holding thousands of asylum seekers following allegations of sexual harassment, intimidation and claims that staff have been paid significantly below the minimum wage.
Yvette Cooper, who chairs the home affairs select committee, has called on the Home Office to investigate the private firms running the hotels.
A joint investigation by the Observer and ITV News found asylum seekers have been unlawfully threatened by private contractor staff that the police will be called if they leave their hotel. There are also allegations that women have been sexually exploited inside hotels, with others complaining they feel unsafe.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have raised these serious allegations with our accommodation provider and will investigate them fully.
“Asylum seekers are not detained – they are free to come and go as they please in line with Covid restrictions.
“The Home Office takes the wellbeing of asylum seekers incredibly seriously and they have 24/7 access to a migrant helpline if they need any assistance.”