Andrew Mitchell: Asylum seekers. As matters stand, it would be irresponsible to vote for these new deportation measures.

6 Dec

Andrew Mitchell was International Development Secretary from 2010 to 2012, and is MP for Sutton Coldfield.

No one should be surprised that people want to come to Britain. We’re a great country – but we can’t just blame the French or kid ourselves that the Australians have the answer to immigration. Bashing the French has long been our national sport, but bashing the British is just as much a favoured French pastime.

We need an immigration policy that is firm but fair. I strongly support Priti Patel in her effort to deliver just that, but she has to play off a sticky wicket. There is no single silver bullet. But there are a series of sensible measures that would help her get back onto the front foot.

The UK’s former Ambassador to Washington, David Manning, rightly wrote this weekend that we can’t pretend to be an Indo-Pacific power while ignoring the continent to which we belong. Brexit hasn’t changed geography: China is 5,000 miles from Britain, while France is just 20. He proposes a new bilateral treaty and a new framework for foreign and defence collaboration with the EU. These are sensible olive branches for us to offer.

The deployment of wave machines and jet skis – under the so called ‘push back’ powers – would lead to catastrophic calamity and diminish our standing on the world stage.

So, too, would proposals for a ‘fantasy island’ to deposit asylum seekers where human rights could not be guaranteed. We cannot challenge abuses in China, Russia and elsewhere if drones are bring flown over a UK offshore detention centre and footage being broadcast around the world. David Davis has rightly raised the spectre of such a place becoming a “British Guantanamo Bay”.

We need to remember what makes our country a global leader. We need to use the final weeks of our presidency of the G7 and our standing at the UN to start a meaningful convening and updating of the 1951 UN refugee convention.

The world is a dangerous place, and one in which climate change and conflict will continue to drive the movement of people from the developing to the developed world for the foreseeable future. We are talking about literally millions of them being on the move.

Where once Britain led as a development superpower, this year we have withdrawn. British development policy was designed to make life at least tolerable over there so that they didn’t come over here.

We are now reaping what we have sown, but it is not too late to change course. We should be gradually returning to our 0.7 per cent commitment on aid and the genuine international leadership that gave us – not leaving it until 2024.

As well as our obligations to those fleeing Taliban persecution in Afghanistan and Chinese repression in Hong Kong, we also have a responsibility to accept our fair share of Christians from Iran, Kurds from Iraq and those fleeing war in Syria and Ethiopia.

The Home Office have full control of refugees asylum claims, but we should no longer require people to set foot on a British beach, or be fished out of British waters, to consider their claim. Pauline Latham made such a very sensible suggestion this weekend.

France received three times as many applications for asylum as we did last year. The Germans have taken the lion’s share of refugees into Europe over the last decade. We are fortunate that the channel represents the backdoor to the EU and that we are not on the frontline in the Mediterranean. We should accept our fair share. No more, no less.

Whether you can afford to pay a people smuggler should not be an entry requirement. You should not have to risk your life in a small boat. You should be able to apply at a British embassy and arrive on a plane, met by an organised local authority. And those local councils should have time to plan, resources to help and an orderly and managed system to integrate new arrivals sustainably into welcoming communities. This might sound Utopian, but it is well within our capacity to absorb just a few families into each of our constituencies each year.

I’m no bleeding heart lefty. I’m a hard-headed civil libertarian. You should always be wary of trusting “the state”, and you can’t solve international problems without countries working together. These are two fundamental Conservative principles that many of us hold dear and they are the ones that will guide my consideration of the proposals in the Nationality and Borders Bill.

Through the Bill, the Government seeks the power to deport asylum seekers before their claims are processed, many of whom will indeed qualify for asylum in Britain . But they haven’t told us where this processing will take place. One of my colleagues comically suggested the Falkland Islands, while the Albanian Foreign Minister denounced reports that they would be sent to Tirana as “fake news”. Until the Government can explain how and where they will use these powers, it is irresponsible for Parliament to grant them.

There is much to commend in this Bill, and we all want Priti Patel to succeed and get it right. But I see no end in sight to the numbers risking their lives to cross the channel until we re-establish the humanitarian resettlement routes which Britain has previously offered. Their lives and our global reputation depend on it.

David Gauke: Oomph and optimism don’t always vanquish the doomsters and gloomsters

22 Nov

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

Being in Government is fabulous. You get to decide what to do and then can implement those decisions, making (what you hope) is a positive difference to large numbers of people. It is what politics should be all about.

This power is not, of course, unqualified. I was fortunate to have nine years as a Minister but, throughout that period, the Governments in which I served faced significant Parliamentary constraints (in turn, a Coalition with the Liberal Democrats, a small majority and finally a minority Government) as well as a precarious fiscal situation, especially in the early years. We were not always able to do what we wanted.

You could have been forgiven in thinking that all this was in the past. Boris Johnson won a very comfortable majority in 2019, and he has always been clear that “austerity” was behind us. This was a “Take Back Control” Government that was going to deliver on the people’s priorities. Enough of the stalemates and gridlocks, the dither and delay. Now it was time to get things done.

What the last three weeks has shown, however, is that the limits on the powers of government have not gone away. All of a sudden, there are six instances when the constraints have become very visible.

First, the Government’s current travails began with the woeful handling of the Paterson affair, about which I wrote on this site a fortnight ago. The Parliamentary manoeuvre which it attempted – establishing a new cross-party committee – required other parties to participate.

Sensibly (and entirely predictably), the other parties refused to participate, leaving the Government with a problem. In addition, the whole proposal was so obviously objectionable that there was a sizeable Parliamentary revolt from the Conservative backbenchers, with the Government’s majority reduced to just under 20. These two Parliamentary factors meant that the Government had to abandon its approach.

Fiscal considerations have played a role in the second third cases which emerged last week. The Government’s plans for rail and, in particular, the abandonment of the eastern leg of HS2 and the scaling back of Northern Powerhouse Rail has provoked much opposition.

As Tim Pitt, a former Treasury Special Adviser, has pointed out, capital spending for the forthcoming years is remarkably high by historic standards, but the Government still has to make choices. Ministers have reached the conclusion that there are better ways of spending this money than delivering on their promises on these two projects.

This might be a reasonable assessment (I questioned the business case for the eastern leg of HS2 when I was Chief Secretary to the Treasury), but the problem is that these promises had been made and reiterated by the Prime Minister.

The row over social care is also tricky. Even after the announcement of an increase in National Insurance Contributions (which will become the Health and Social Care Levy), there are still choices to be made, and the Government has chosen to take a tougher approach to the means test than expected.

Personally, I think the Government has got its priorities wrong on social care (I believe that we should ask more from those with large estates who face social care costs), but any government has to make choices. Again, the problem is that the new approach falls below expectations.

In both cases, the Government cannot prioritise everything (even if it has a tendency to promise everything). Tough choices have to be made.

Of growing political salience is our fourth example: migrants crossing the Channel in small boats. This is the sort of thing that was supposed to stop with Brexit, apparently (for reasons that have never been clear), and it leaves the Government unusually vulnerable to an attack from the Right.

What could be more damaging to it is the sense of powerlessness. It is not obvious that the Government knows what to do about the problem, hence we have a different story each day as to what could be done (including processing asylum applications in Albania, which came as a surprise to the Albanians).

No Government could find an easy solution to this issue. Some might try building a close and co-operative relationship with the French; this Government tries haranguing them instead. It is not clear that this is working.

Whilst we are discussing diplomacy, the ongoing negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol demonstrate that this Government does not always get what it wants (even in the oven-ready deal that it put at the heart of its general election campaign and which it has ever since tried to rewrite), and this constitutes the fifth case.

By the looks of it, the Government is backing away from triggering Article 16, which is just as well. This would have resulted in a trade war which would have disproportionately damaged the UK economy and left us isolated from the EU and US. After a lot of huffing and puffing, the Government looks as if the role of the European Court of Justice is not quite so central, after all.

The sixth and final example is the non-appointment of Paul Dacre as chair of Ofcom. Having clearly encouraged him to apply, refused to accept his rejection by the interview panel but changed the remit of the role to increase the chance of him being viewed as appointable, the Government went to great lengths to get their man.

Dacre, however, has declared that he has had enough and withdrawn his application, complaining about how someone “from the private sector who, God forbid, has convictions” was never going to be accepted by the civil service “Blob”.

As it happens, the original interview panel was predominantly made up of people from the private sector. and it would be entirely reasonable if they concluded that Dacre’s strong “convictions” sat uneasily with chairing a regulator that holds the ring on broadcasters’ bias. An independent public appointments regime is a necessary check and balance and, ultimately, the system worked as it should have done.

Bring these cases together and a pattern emerges. The Government wanted to protect Owen Paterson, build the eastern leg of HS2 and the cross-Pennine rail line, ensure no one has to sell their house to pay for social care, stop migrants arriving here in small boats, remove the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland, and appoint Paul Dacre as Chair of Ofcom. For one reason or another, it is not able to do any of those things.

Does this reveal that the Government is close to collapse? No, it does not. Governments do not always get their way and, as I have written elsewhere, I think the great likelihood is that Boris Johnson will lead the Conservatives into the next election (and, as it happens, I think he will probably win it).

To some extent, this is all just reality reasserting itself. Being in Government is fabulous, but it is also hard. It involves trade-offs and prioritisation and compromise. Not every problem is solvable; not every call can be answered. You do not always get your way.

The problem for the Prime Minister is that much of his considerable voter appeal has been to dismiss the pettifogging concerns of the doomsters and gloomsters. Complexity is for wimps. So-called problems are merely trivialities that can be overcome with a bit of oomph and optimism.

This certainly raises expectations. As these six recent examples demonstrate, however, it does not reflect the realities of governing. Eventually, reality – whether political, economic or diplomatic – prevails.

Asylum seekers and economic migrants. Where is the place that would allow us to process applications offshore?

19 Nov

It’s been another week where our newslinks have been peppered throughout with stories – few of them good for the Government – about the apparently insoluble problem of would-be illegal entrants crossing the Channel in small boats.

Just yesterday morning, for example, we had France denying that tens of millions of pounds of British money were actually meant to stop all the crossings, which seems to be news to the Home Office; a Minister confirming that only five illegal immigrants have been sent back this year; and a report that the Government wants to spend £100,000 per case to fly those who do cross out to Albania for processing.

This last seems to be news to the Albanians, a member of who’s government has said that the country “will never be a hub of anti-immigration policies of bigger and richer countries”.

Yet as far as the Home Office is concerned, such a hub is precisely what’s required.

The problem is simple enough. People know that once they set foot on UK soil, they are almost certainly going to be able to stay here – especially if they take the precaution of destroying those documents which would allow us to prove their nationality. (Countries are actually pretty reliable at taking back their own citizens, apparently.)

Hence offshore processing. Establish that anybody arriving in this country via illegal means will be flown to a facility in some remote location whilst their case is considered. If they succeed, then happy days. If not, no vanishing into the black economy. They’re suddenly just in whatever country the processing centre is in, and it would be really advisable to still have a passport in those circumstances.

But where? There isn’t a handy North Atlantic island microstate prepared to play the role for the UK the role that Nauru serves in the Australian system. With Albania off the table, presumably the quest continues.

So far, the Prime Minister has cunningly kept this from the top of the news agenda with his self-inflicted sleaze crisis. But whilst overall attitudes towards immigration do seem to have softened since the Brexit vote, the Channel boats are a highly visible, and thus politically potent, example of people defying the rules, desperately trying to reach Britain to escape that terrible warzone, France.

Meanwhile, the would-be bomber in Liverpool has focused attention once again on the fact that so many people are able to simply remain in the country once their asylum claims have been rejected. It’s a toxic combination.