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Rishi Sunak yesterday enjoyed the experience of being scragged by the Daily Mail and the Guardian at the same time. This was not as rare as it might be – though the subject doesn’t usually relate to one of his five pledges, on which he has special incentives to deliver what he’s promised.
Weak, said the Mail – not directly in those terms, exactly, but certainly by implication. His new approach to asylum claimants, which will dispense with interviews and rely on questionairres, is an amnesty in all but name. People who are not entitled to be here will deliberately cheat the form, and then bring in their relatives for good measure.
Cruel, said the Guardian. The form asks more than 50 questions, must be completed in 20 days, and – horror of horrors – will be in English. Furthermore, the asylum seekers concerned may not have access to legal advice. Rather than being an amnesty, the plan will have a “devastating impact”.
Who was right? Perhaps the best means of deciding is to weigh some of the reactions. The British Red Cross is unhappy about the 20 day deadline. Freedom from Torture is concerned about the prospects for torture victims. However, the Refugee Council welcomed the plan while Migration Watch did not.
And what does the Government have to say for itself? Its case is as follows. Ministers are preparing for an asyluim system that will swiftly decide whether it’s safe for those who arrive here by small boat to be returned to their home country or not. If they can’t be, then they will be not be eligible for asylum in Britain, and may be flown to Rwanda to be considered for it there.
In order for the new system to work, caseworkers must be ready to triage those who get off the small boats as soon as they do so. Which they won’t be able to manage if they’re grappling with a record backlog of cases: those awaiting an initial decision reached a record high of over 136,500 in the final quarter of last year.
And the total number currently awaiting a decision on their claims is over 160,000. Hence the shift to paper only for all Libyans, Syrians, Afghans, Eritreans and Yemenis who arrived before June 28 last year – whether they came by small boat or not. The scheme is then expected to be rolled out further.
Essentially, Sunak is clearing the decks in order to allow his crew to prepare for action. To which a response might be that it’s all very well clearing decks if those not entitled to be there end up in the ship’s cabins. The Centre for Policy Studies compares what the Prime Minister is trying to do to running up a down escalator.
What else might the Government do – short of seeking to ensure that no claims are heard at all, which would be wide of the Refugee Convention, the Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights and a mass of other obligations? And which the courts, civil servants, border force would refuse to co-operate with.
It could hire more caseworkers. Mind you, it’s already doing so, doubling the number last year so that it now stands at 1,237, with Ministers aiming to get the number of caseworkers up to 2,000. But their productivity is still 40 per cent lower than it was before the pandemic, though it’s risen from a low of 0.6 during it to an average of 4.5 in the final quarter of 2022.
However, as the CPS points out, this data “does not include an update for the number of asylum cases concluded, just case stages completed. As such, it is not clear whether an apparent improvement in productivity is actually translating into reducing the asylum backlog”.
Why is productivity, even measured as it is, lower than pre-Covid? The answer may lie in the peak efficiency date – 18.2 case stages per caseworker per month in 2015/16, before the Modern Slavery Act came into effect. To cut a long story short, the Act requires additional checks which in turn require additional time – so slowing down the whole system.
The Prime Minister’s planned Bill will apparently get to grips with the problem, or try to: watch for the response from Theresa May, who nurtured the Act on her watch. But her response will be nothing compared to the fury of the Guardian if it delivers…and the Mail if it doesn’t. Plus of course the Daily Telegraph, the Fleet Street news outlet, as ever, for so many Tory activists.
There’s no point in offending anyone if you don’t have to, but politics means choices, and Sunak would be making the wrong one in this instance if he plumped for offending his core constituency. And a much bigger one lines up with it – including a mass of voters in northern and Midlands marginals who voted Conservative in 2019 to “get Brexit done”.
These are sometimes described, in a rather out of date manner, as “natural Labour voters”: it would be nearer the truth to say that lots of them don’t vote at all, at least most of the time, and that many of them despise all politicians as a matter of course. There is no evidence that most people, including these, are opposed to taking in more refugees.
Indeed, humanitarian visas accounted for the second largest proportion of immigrants last year to June – some 39 per cent of a net migration record total of 276,000. These included 89,000 Ukrainians, 76,000 Hong Kongers and 21,000 Afghans or UK Afghanistan returnees. The open secret of the Boris Johnson’s inheritance is a more liberal system.
But voters won’t long tolerate high levels overall, at least if polling is anything to go by – especially if they feel that those arriving by small boat are making a mockery of border control, and that government is unwilling or incapable or both of doing almost anything at all.
Mix the far right, the anti-border control left, violence and anti-social behaviour from some new arrivals, the amplifying effect of social media and un-levelled up neighbourhoods together, and you have a toxic cocktail. The Prime Minister has chosen to throw all his energies into resolving the Northern Ireland Protocol.
It is at least arguable that he would have done better to do so for small boats. Downing Street seems to think that one day’s bad publicity over clearing the asylum backlog is a price worth paying for sorting the small boats problem (which would win it some rather better publicity, by the way).
There are differences between Number Ten and the Home Office – and indeed within the former itself and the Government more widely – about exactly how Sunak’s new Bill should be framed. It’s a statement of the obvious that it needs to close the legal loopholes that previous ones didn’t. How was this situation allowed to come to this pass under Sunak’s predecessors?
The best prescription looks like being that which Richard Ekins of Policy Exchange set out recently on this site. Concentrate the new legislation on small boats. Narrow the grounds for individual appeals. Remove the applicability of sections of the Human Rights Act (while making it clear that the Bill is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights).
Ekins believes that it isn’t necessary to leave the Convention to solve the problem, though it might ultimately mean defying the Court. Though there is a dimension of any such solution that has not been sufficiently publicised. Rwanda has limited capacity and the Bill may not immediately deter. What will become of other small boats’ claimants who can’t be returned to a safe country?