» Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Beverley Hughes/Immigration

Asked the Prime Minister’s view of the way the Home Office had been conducting its affairs recently, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) said the Prime Minister continued to believe that the Home Office was trying to do a very difficult job well. He hoped people would recognise that the Government, led by the Prime Minister, David Blunkett and Beverley Hughes, had taken concerted, systematic action to deal with the problems in the asylum system, which, in turn, had helped lead to the halving of the number of asylum applications. We acknowledged that there were currently problems with the immigration system. We would examine those had been highlighted and take equally systematic action to address them if it was found necessary to do so.

Asked if he had discovered whether Ministers had been informed about the concerns raised in Romania and Bulgaria, the PMOS said that these were matters which would be considered by Ken Sutton. It went without saying that we would ensure the inquiry would be given all the relevant papers to examine.

Asked if he would agree that the Home Office had not succeeded in its attempt to do a difficult job well, the PMOS said we would acknowledge that there were issues which had to be addressed. That was being done. Equally, it was important for people to recognise that significant progress had been made on asylum. Put to him that the Government’s failure to address a ‘great swathe’ of problems relating to illegal immigration was no small matter, the PMOS said that the premise of the question was based on a pre-judgement of the Sutton inquiry. In his experience, it was always better to examine the particular issues that had been highlighted before jumping to conclusions. Asked if the inquiry would cover the fact that there appeared to be thousands of illegal immigrants living in Norfolk and Suffolk, the PMOS said that if people had actual evidence to support this claim, they should bring it forward to the Home Office rather than make broad-brush allegations. Put to him that it was up to the Government to look for that evidence in the light of the fact that several allegations had already been made, the PMOS underlined that, rather than make general allegations, people should bring any specific evidence they had to the attention of the relevant authorities. We were not afraid to admit there was a problem with immigration. However, the way to resolve those issues was not by making general accusations but looking at specific problems and addressing them in a systematic way. That was what we had done with asylum and was what we were doing with immigration. Put to him that the Government had clearly failed to look at the evidence of immigration fraud and malpractice it had received from officials in its own Departments, the PMOS said he had no intention of rushing to premature judgements before the Sutton inquiry had been completed. It was up to the inquiry to establish the facts. Challenged that the concerns from senior Home Office officials had not been dealt with by the Government and that he was simply using the inquiry as a way of avoiding answering difficult questions, the PMOS said he would refute absolutely the suggestion that the inquiry was a ruse to sweep unwelcome questions and facts under the carpet. On the contrary. It was a serious, genuine attempt to discover the true facts and then take action in problematic areas. The way that we had tackled the issue of asylum showed that the Government was making a serious attempt to resolve these matters. It went without saying that the findings would be followed through.

Asked if the hotline was operational yet and whether Ministers would be informed about the calls that were made, the PMOS referred journalists to the Home Office for the specifics relating to the hotline. In overall terms, however, we were determined to get to the bottom of any problems which existed and would address them in a systematic way. Asked if the ‘we’ referred to Ministers, the PMOS said that Ministers, from David Blunkett and Beverley Hughes down, had made it clear that they wanted to get to the bottom of these issues. They did not want to hide them under the carpet. They wanted to address them and that was what they were doing.

Asked if Ken Sutton’s inquiry would be limited to investigating what had been happening in Romania and Bulgaria, the PMOS said that the problems that had been highlighted related specifically to those two countries. It was therefore relevant for him to examine those issues first. Put to him that the narrow remit of the previous Sutton inquiry had meant that other serious problems had been missed and that a broader inquiry into the work of the IND should be established, the PMOS said that while it was fair to say that some concerns might have come to light, it was equally important not to overlook the fact that the IND had made substantial progress on asylum. The purpose of the Sutton inquiry was to establish the truth of the allegations. Ken Sutton was someone who had the experience and knowledge to do just that and he should be allowed to get on with his job. We recognised that his report was not going to produce instant answers, which would be frustrating for some. However, it was better to take the time to discover the true facts rather than rush to instant judgement. Put to him that the ‘progress’ on asylum in terms of the fall in applications might have been due to the fact that people had been given residency through abnormal channels, the PMOS said he thought it was better to work on the basis of actual fact rather than general accusation. The progress that had been made on asylum was indisputable, as indeed the figures showed. Asked again to explain why the remit of the second Sutton inquiry was so narrow, the PMOS said that since particular issues had been raised, it was important for them to be investigated as a matter of some urgency. If there were broader issues to be examined, then we would look at them. In the meantime, it was important to let Mr Sutton establish the facts on the specific issues relating to the allegations that had been made.

Asked if the Prime Minister was concerned that there had been a breakdown in internal communications inasmuch as the Foreign Office’s Sir John Ramsden had raised a number of issues relating Bulgaria nearly eighteen months ago but nothing had been done, the PMOS said the Prime Minister was concerned that the issues which had been raised would be addressed in a systematic way. Ken Sutton should be allowed to establish the facts and give a considered judgement. He was not going to provide a running commentary on his work.

Put to him that the fact that high level concerns had not been dealt with had led to a ‘catastrophic’ breakdown of trust in the Government – and yet it would appear that Mr Sutton was not going to address the broader immigration issues unless he decided to so, the PMOS said that it was just as important to recognise the considerable progress which had been made by the IND on asylum over the past year, which had been the result of a systematic approach to resolve the problems that had been highlighted. We acknowledged that issues had been raised in relation to immigration. The Home Secretary and Immigration Minister had both accepted that the allegations were serious, hence the serious way we were addressing them – not through generalisations but through specifics. We were taking a step-by-step approach. If there were other issues to consider, we would consider them too. Asked why it had taken several years before the Government had made any progress on asylum – and even then it was difficult to believe the figures because of the way the Government tended to ‘fiddle’ them, the PMOS said that the problems at the IND went back a long way and had not been addressed in the past in a systemic way. Pressed as to why it had taken the Government six years to deal with the problem of asylum at the IND and why it had taken seven years to begin tackling the problems of immigration there, the PMOS pointed out that the problems at the IND went all the way back to previous administrations. Beverley Hughes had acknowledged openly from the outset that she recognised they had to be addressed. That was now being done and people should give Ms Hughes credit for the significant reduction in the number of asylum applications. That said, the Government had never pretended that all the problems at the IND had been resolved. Clearly they hadn’t been.

Asked if the Prime Minister believed that Ministers should take responsibility for the disarray in their Department even if they had no knowledge of what had been going on, the PMOS said that rather than respond to hypotheticals, he thought it would be far more useful to address the facts as established by a systemic inquiry into these matters. Put to him that the principle of Ministerial accountability meant that Ministers took responsibility on behalf of Civil Servants for the running of their departments, even if they had no knowledge of what had been going on, the PMOS observed that Ministers should also be given credit for improvements in their departments. He agreed that the principle of accountability remained applicable. Equally, however, it was important to recognise that Ministers could not be made accountable for absolutely everything that went on in their departments. The key question was whether they addressed problems when they were raised. The Sutton inquiry had been set up to ascertain the facts. In that way, a commitment had been demonstrated to address the issues which had been raised in a systemic way. Asked if he was implying that a Minister, who was not aware of the specific operations that were fundamental to the running of their department, could not be accused of negligence, the PMOS said that rather than deal with theoreticals and generalities, it was important to establish the facts. That was precisely the purpose of Ken Sutton’s inquiry. Put to him that the problems at the IND had been identified several months ago and had not been addressed until now – which was hardly a sign that the Immigration Minister was in control of her own department, the PMOS said that it was important to establish the facts of the case. That was Mr Sutton’s job. People should allow the processes to take their natural course. Asked if he was indicating that Mr Sutton would examine exactly what Beverley Hughes had known and when, the PMOS said that Mr Sutton would have all the relevant material he needed.

Asked if, in defending Ms Hughes, he was implying Jack Straw had not done anything to address the problem when he had been Home Secretary, the PMOS said no. He had simply been making the point that Ms Hughes had identified the fact that there was much more work that needed to be done at the IND. That was why the Prime Minister had taken a personal interest in the issue of asylum and was why Ms Hughes had stated openly on her appointment as Immigration Minister that issues needed to be resolved. That was precisely what we were doing. Asked if this was why Barbara Roche had been sacked, the PMOS said that to reduce the issue to personalities would be to demean the important matters we were facing.

Asked if the Prime Minister was concerned about reports suggesting that the issue of asylum and immigration was becoming the number one grievance among voters, the PMOS said the Prime Minister had always recognised that asylum and immigration was a significant concern. However, it was one which the Government had taken measures to address. He also believed that people were concerned about other issues too, such as health, education and crime. That was why the Government had brought forward a range of policies on those issues as well.

Asked if the Government believed that setting up inquiries was the best way to resolve contentious disputes, the PMOS said that if an issue was raised, it was usual to investigate it. That was the definition of an inquiry. It was a logical and rational way to do business.

Briefing took place at 11:00 | Search for related news


  1. This Government has a complete lack of understanding what the average "Joe" public thinks of the problem of Asylum Seekers.We are a small off shore Island of Europe,overcrowded already,and I and most people I meet do not believe that there is any genuine asylum seekers coming here,they are all bogus.We are surrounded by Countries that are perfectly safe for anyone to reside in,there is no need to come here other than we are a "Soft Touch"The Government was elected first and foremost to look after the interests of the genuine population of this Country and it has woefully failed.They will reap what they have sown.

    Yours Faithfully

    David A.Barnes

    Comment by Mr David Barnes — 31 Mar 2004 on 4:54 pm | Link
  2. Well thank goodness that the country is not run by ‘average "Joe" public’ as he is clearly ignorant and stupid.

    Its probably about time that average Joe got his nose out of the express or mail and tried to find out what was going on in the real world.

    Comment by Uncarved Block — 31 Mar 2004 on 5:14 pm | Link
  3. We’re not that overcrowded if you take the country as a whole (NL has a much higher population density, for instance). The SouthEast is, but that’s because of people’s lifestyle choices, not the (comparatively small) number of asylum seekers.

    Merely because we’re surrounded by safe countries doesn’t mean that people necessarily travel through them to get here. Air travel means that you can come from Congo (say) to Britain without going through France, Spain, Germany, etc. I don’t have the facts to hand, but I seem to recall that Italy has a much higher number of asylum seekers than we do – but that may just have been at the time of the Albanian problems.

    When you say genuine population of this country, I assume you are using the Daily Mail code for white middle class people. As the white middle class son of an asylum seeker, do the Government need to look after me?

    Comment by Marek Ostrowski — 31 Mar 2004 on 6:35 pm | Link
  4. We should bang up asylum seekers as soon as they get here in cushy camps.
    There should be lawyers and the courts on site so that the asylum seeking process can be done quickly in about two weeks.
    We should also give them intensive english lessons while their there and seperate them from other people who speak the same language (though obviously not their families).
    Then failed asylum seekers finger prints are taken so they cant re apply and their shipped straight back home. Sorted.
    Marek where and what is NL?

    Comment by John Murphy — 31 Mar 2004 on 8:31 pm | Link
  5. isn’t NL a state in the U.S.

    and if asylum seekers can easily use air travel, why shouldn’t they go to the U.S, canada, russia etc, where there is much more space. lets be honest, britain isn’t exactly huge.

    and isn’t finding out whether or not someone has, "the skills to pay the bills" easy, you just ask them what their good at, make them prove it, and your sussed, easy.


    Comment by benjamin — 31 Mar 2004 on 8:42 pm | Link
  6. "We are a small off shore Island of Europe,"
    — no we’re not. We’re the fifth largest country in the EU.
    "overcrowded already,"
    — not really, by comparison with other rich countries.
    "and I and most people I meet do not believe that there is any genuine asylum seekers coming here,they are all bogus."
    — then they, like you, are ignorant.

    Comment by Chris Lightfoot — 31 Mar 2004 on 8:53 pm | Link
  7. I consider myself to be ‘joe public’. Allthough I tend not to believe all I read in the papers, we see enough instances of foriegn nationals being in this country illegally, to lead us to believe that all though there may not be a problem of epidemic proportions there is still a problem.If the problem today is no greater than it previously has been then why do we have the need for ‘Assylum villages’ to be built, and how is it that all government departments when questioned on the issues complain of overstretch and understaffing.

    Comment by neil davies — 31 Mar 2004 on 9:11 pm | Link
  8. Sorry, NL is the Netherlands.

    Comment by Marek Ostrowski — 31 Mar 2004 on 9:45 pm | Link
  9. I think that there are a few common misconceptions about Britain and asylum seekers that are being taken at face value here – not surprising as they’re so assiduously spread by most of the press.

    The first is that the majority of immigrants are asylum seekers, and that they are somehow contributing to overcrowding. In fact the huge majority of immigrants to the UK are Americans, Kiwis, Australians and Europeans. Non-rich-world immigrants are a small proportion of immigrants, asylum seekers a smaller proportion still.

    The second is that no asylum claims are justified. In fact, the proportion of asylum claims that are granted in much higher than you’d expect. Not 50%, or anything like, but still more than none.

    The third – and this is the classic example of the insularity of British press and politics – is that Britain is somehow uniquely plagued by these ghastly foreigners. In fact, the US has far higher numbers of immigrants, and more illegal immigrants, than the UK will ever have. Britain is not a particularly popular destination by European standards either – pretty much average if you take it on a per head basis.

    Comment by Marek Ostrowski — 31 Mar 2004 on 10:00 pm | Link
  10. With a low birth rate and an ageing population we need more immigrants to keep this country going. Many immigrants have skills and are well educated and those that aren’t will take up the low-skilled jobs that have been done by first generation immigrants for centuries. They should not be locked up in camps; they should be welcomed and given permission to take up work straight away.

    There are more asylum seekers in the UK than there used to be for two simple reasons. Improvements in communications mean that more of the world knows that Britain is one of the richest countries in the world and they can make a better life for themselves here. Improvements in transport mean that it is much easier for people to get to the UK – their country of choice because, thanks to the empire, more people speak English than any other European language (other English speaking countries, such as USA and Canada, also get large numbers of asylum seekers). This, of course, must be put in perspective. The countries with the most refugees (UNHCR figures 2003) were Iran and Pakistan with the UK not even in the top 10.

    The immigration service (along with other areas of the civil service) is overstretched and understaffed. For over twenty years the number of civil servants has been in decline and yet they are being asked to do more by politicians. David Davis showed the true hypocrisy of politicians by sympathising with \x91overworked civil servants in the immigration service\x92 in the debates about Beverly Hughes only one week after Michael Howard was vying with Gordon Brown over who was going to sack more civil servants.

    Overall I don\x92t think its too alarmist to point out the similarities between the language used about asylum seekers in the press and by politicians and the language used about the Jews by the Nazis. Its all about creating a culture of fear and hate \x96 it sells more newspapers, it gets more votes and it distracts from the real issues that people should be worried about (health, education, inequality, war, etc. etc.)

    Comment by Uncarved Block — 31 Mar 2004 on 10:14 pm | Link
  11. Hang on. Hasn’t Brown just suggested shedding 40000 civil service jobs in his last budget. We have a mediocre system run by mediocre ministers in the main.

    Comment by DEGREEK — 31 Mar 2004 on 10:41 pm | Link
  12. "Overall I don\x92t think its too alarmist to point out the similarities between the language used about asylum seekers in the press and by politicians and the language used about the Jews by the Nazis."
    — quite, especially given the Chamberlain government’s shameful record on Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. This country bears a heavy responsibility for the scale of murder which the Nazis committed; had we had a more civilised policy on asylum then, many more might have been saved. Seen in its historical context, the current furore over "bogus" asylum seekers is, frankly, disgusting.

    Comment by Chris Lightfoot — 31 Mar 2004 on 11:03 pm | Link
  13. Well, pick the bones out of that lot.

    Comment by Hugh Tattersall — 31 Mar 2004 on 11:39 pm | Link
  14. As predicted, Bev has gone. Resigned for misleading parliament (albeit ‘unwittingly’).

    All that spin and clever words couldn’t whitewash the underlying incompetence and shambles.

    How much better for TB it would have been if he had taken firm action himself instead of being forced into the position where he and Blunkett have been voraciously supporting her for days and days.

    It just represents the lack of morality at the heart of government. There is one thing supporting your friends and cronies but you shouldn’t be doing that at the country’s expense.

    Shame on them

    Comment by DEGREEK — 1 Apr 2004 on 11:15 am | Link
  15. "Pro immigration… fascist"? Isn’t that somewhat of a contradiction in terms?

    Comment by Lodjer — 1 Apr 2004 on 1:35 pm | Link
  16. As Mr Average I thought it interesting that TB avoided one question at least twice during today’s press conference.

    He was asked that if he thought Britain needed migrants, then how many migrants does Britain need?

    It seemed a fair question given that to calculate spending on housing, health, education and any number of other services you have to know the number of people likely to use them.

    Blair shrugged off the question as if somehow he knew that we needed more workers but that the exact number wasn’t important. Or perhaps it varied with the seasons, like cockle picking.

    The problem seems to be that we have no idea how many migrants are in the UK. We check them in but we don’t check on them when they leave. It’s a loophole that has been open for far too long and will probably be closed with the introduction of some kind of ID card, which is something else that TB said is back on the agenda.

    The other problem is that Britain is currently exporting jobs such as call centres to places like India where people will work for less money. What then happens to the UK citizens who now can no longer work in that industry simply because a living wage here prices them out of the market?

    You have to wonder too about what is so special about migrant workers. What skills do they learn in underperforming economies that the UK population seems incapable of?

    TB never says we’re in need of more au pairs, waiters or cleaners, jobs that the British have always avoided. He always alludes to professional skills, often in the building industry, nursing or computing. But again, what is, for instance, Bulgaria doing so well that the UK is failing at to have so many skilled workers who can’t make a go of their own country but somehow can make a go of this one?

    I have no problems with immigration but I am increasingly suspicious of a government that cannot explain itself without appearing contradictory.

    It was fascinating today watching TB telling everyone to avoid linking the issues of immigration to that of asylum seekers. In fact the only person who linked these two issues was TB himself. Too much smoke and mirrors I say.

    Comment by Mr Average — 1 Apr 2004 on 2:09 pm | Link
  17. The previous poster wrote: "The problem seems to be that we have no idea how many migrants are in the UK. We check them in but we don’t check on them when they leave. It’s a loophole that has been open for far too long and will probably be closed with the introduction of some kind of ID card, which is something else that TB said is back on the agenda."

    Except asylum seekers already have an ID card — the Asylum Registration Card, which does involve fingerprint registration.

    And an ID Card won’t solve any of these problems. Unless it’s compulsory to carry at all times and the police are allowed to ask anyone to present it at any time (effectively, thus, victimising "suspicious-looking people" or, more likely, people with the "wrong" color skin), how would it make any difference?

    ID cards seem to be seen as some ind of panacæa for all society’s problems, yet they won’t make the blindest bit of difference. Terrorism: all the 9/11 hijackers were carrying valid-yet-fake Virginia DMV licences; Illegal working: why would someone employing on the black market care about checking someone’s ID card?; Immigration: we already have the ARC; Identity Fraud: so it’ll reduce identity theft by giving everyone a piece of plastic that everyone trusts is foolproof (yet can’t ever be)? I don’t think so…

    Comment by Owen Blacker — 1 Apr 2004 on 2:28 pm | Link
  18. Surely Bev Hughes should done a "paper search" for any possible danming letters/emails as soon as the threat appeared, or was the workload too much? Or was it a classic civil service ambush?…Whatever, she was told to fall on her sword to save Blunketts skin.
    I cannot see that T.B will make much difference as hes a busy man what with domestic politics, and his evangelistic zeal to save the world. Lets face it T.B is more interested in his place in history than whether or not a one-legged left handed roofer from Transilvania gets a visa or not.

    Comment by mikerbiker — 1 Apr 2004 on 2:48 pm | Link
  19. In respect of ID cards being used to track who is or isn’t in the UK Owen Blacker wrote:

    "Except asylum seekers already have an ID card \x97 the Asylum Registration Card, which does involve fingerprint registration."

    But that wasn’t the point I was making. Ironically you’ve done exactly what TB warned the journalists about, conflated issues of asylum and immigration. Maybe TB knew what he was doing after all.

    No one said asylum seekers were a problem when it comes to tracking them in and out of the country. One presumes that when they arrive their backgrounds are checked and they stay, making the UK their home.

    Indeed the authorities should know more about their status than that of the indigenous population. Well, they should if they do their job properly but that’s another story as the case of the Polish murderer proved just this week.

    No, the problem of immigration is not one of asylum. The government knows, or should know, who these asylum seekers are. What they don’t know is how many of the other migrants who come to the UK on visas (holiday, education, work) are also in the country.

    While immigrants are checked on their way into the UK they are not checked when they leave. Many of them overstay their visas. It was apparent from today’s briefing that TB has no idea how many immigrants are presently living and working in the UK.

    This is not good news, particularly at a time of heightened security, and this weakness in the government’s immigration policy will no doubt be exploited by other political parties.

    To be fair to TB this weakness has existed for decades and TB will no doubt point this out arguing that if it was good enough under the Tories then it’s good enough for Labour. But this is pure rhetoric and does nothing to solve the problem. Time to launch another enquiry. That usually gives the voters enough time to forget all about it.

    Or so TB will hope. He’s made more enquiries that Columbo. Regrettably he has yet to find anyone in government responsible for anything.

    Comment by Mr Average — 1 Apr 2004 on 4:31 pm | Link

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