by Jack Tunmore
Ed Miliband’s speech in Rochester and Strood this week provided some welcome clarity on Labour’s immigration policy. It is certainly encouraging that he chose to focus on specific and achievable measures that directly affect millions of people: stopping the exploitation of workers and the undercutting of wages will be both progressive and effective, as will closing loopholes that allow agencies to hire only from abroad. A crackdown on illegal immigration as part of his Immigration Reform Bill will no doubt be popular – but Miliband was also at pains to stress that both he and by-election candidate Naushabah Khan were the children of immigrants and were proud of the contribution they and many like them had made.
These clear and concrete policies contrast well with Cameron’s increasingly alarming drift towards Brexit. They are also particularly timely as the whole political spectrum expresses incredulity that the Prime Minister had supposedly just discovered the UK had been landed with a £1.7 billion EU surcharge – Civitas damningly concluded that “this is all a problem of David Cameron’s making”.
Labour now has an opportunity to inject some nuance and decency into the immigration debate. An important start would be a wholesale reappraisal of our asylum system.
That is not to say that the asylum system will be a major election issue; or that such an appraisal would not be difficult. A report from the Migration Observatory published in July noted that attitudes towards immigration are more negative in the UK than they are in the US and much of Europe, with asylum seekers being held in much lower regard than students or high-skilled migrants. Reform of our asylum system is however a chance for Labour to show that we can lead rather than just follow the immigration debate. A balance of compassion and pragmatism is required.
It would be hugely positive, for example, for Labour to lead strongly on the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration John Vine’s report published last week which examined how asylum claims made on the grounds of sexual orientation are handled by the Home Office. To summarise: they are handled disgracefully, with “intrusive” interviews that sometimes even question the validity of same-sex relationships. Such questioning has no place in our society and Labour should be saying so loud and clear.
We should also make the case that it makes no sense for failed asylum seekers to have to use the so-called ‘Azure’ card to spend the £35.39 they are given by the state each week. The cards often do not work, a vast majority of users have experienced abuse when they try to use them and they cannot be used for travel or meagre comforts. Despite the inevitable protests that claim asylum seekers will use cash to smoke and drink their way through the week, we should press for the cards to be scrapped.
The scope of the reappraisal would have to go much further and address the fact that we regularly deport asylum seekers to countries where they will probably face extreme violence. The UK continues to deport Tamils to Sri Lanka despite compelling evidence that many face torture and imprisonment on their return. Labour would have good reason to question this practice in light of the fact that Home Office officials are rewarded with gift vouchers, cash bonuses and extra holiday if they turn down 70% of asylum appeals.
This would not of course preclude Labour from committing to reduce the number of foreign prisoners in our jails – Shadow Immigration Minister David Hanson has rightly pointed out that such deportations have gone down significantly since 2010. Serious commitments to clamp down on fraud are also needed. The same Inspector Vine who highlighted poor treatment of asylum seekers by the Home Office has also roundly criticised the “unacceptable” failure of the current government to stop fraudulent claims on the grounds of financial destitution. Yvette Cooper has made further inroads by sensibly arguing for the government to be more diligent in acting upon the Dublin agreement, ensuring that asylum seekers have their claims assessed and their care paid for in the country that was their ‘point of entry.’
There is little doubt that in the current climate radical improvements to our asylum system would be widely challenged and in some quarters derided. We would to some extent rely on attempts to reframe the debate and highlight our history of welcoming those who have been persecuted in their own countries. Now that we have clarity on Miliband’s Immigration Reform Bill, however, we should push forward and show that we are both pragmatic and compassionate.
Jack Tunmore is a Labour campaigner