Labour MPs should revolt against Jack Straw's `tough' asylum bill

Although I approve of the Government, this does not mean that I will lie for it
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The Independent Culture
"DO YOU know," I said to another columnist, in an embattled moment, "that you and I seem to be just about the only two journalists in Britain who actually like this Government?" I expected, I suppose, to be clasped, embraced, kissed even. Together we two could have toasted the healths of Clare Short and Alistair Darling until dawn. But instead AC blushed slightly, moved away almost imperceptibly, and said - far too quickly, "Well, of course, David, I'm not really quite as Blairite as you are."

This hurt. What I'd been trying to convey to my colleague was my sense of surprise that - despite the Government's standing in the polls - the overwhelming consensus among the young cosmopolitans of the press was that Blair's lot was a total shower. After all, you can scarcely get through an opera review these days without the reviewer indulging in some obscure and ignorant metaphor likening the Duke in Rigoletto to Robin Cook. Only in the editorials, whose writers are anonymous and therefore safe from ostracism, does anyone dare to defend New Labour.

Here my bravery deserts me, too. So let me add, hastily, that though I approve of the Government, this does not mean that I will lie for it. Like an old, smelly monkey looking for fleas, I regularly inspect my greying fur for signs of bias or dissembling.

Had Michael Portillo borrowed three very big ones from, say, Hezza, would his enforced subsequent resignation have seemed as harsh to me as did Peter Mandelson's? If Mrs Thatcher had been bombing Belgrade, would I have been quite as convinced of the necessity of taking action against Milosevic? I hope so.

But is it really so illegitimate, so weird, so improper, to say that, on balance, you think that an administration is doing well? The day after tomorrow elections will be held for a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. We now have a minimum wage. There is more money for public services and - from next year - substantial extra cash to boost the morale and status of the teaching profession. Money has been redistributed from the wealthy, via a myriad of clever little conduits, into assisting the poor. Buy an expensive house, pay the new stamp duty, and you'll see what I mean. And in Kosovo as well as over the extradition of General Pinochet, it has demonstrated a belief that the struggle for human rights and against terrible injustice crosses borders.

Yet when it was first elected the Government was, despite its majority, understandably nervous. Mr Blair was administratively in charge of something for the first time since he organised a bring-and-buy sale for Dalston Labour Party in 1981, and Mr Brown had probably - before entering the Treasury - never seen a cheque for much more than 500 quid (Scottish house prices being what they are). And how much of the victory was theirs, and how much belonged to The Sun or to the errors of Mr Major?

Nervous animals, as any dog-owner knows, can let off a nasty smell. In general this Government has done best where it has followed its conscience and its instincts. It has done worst when it has allowed those instincts to be overridden by its concern about losing support among those who may not share its values.

In January of this year Mike O'Brien, an able if slightly anonymous Home Office minister, announced that "within the next few weeks the UK will be introducing tough new laws to tackle abuse of the immigration and asylum system".

Sure enough, in February that Bill was published and it is currently going through its committee stage in the Commons. It provides for a number of measures to speed up the processing of applications for political asylum, as the Government promised before the election.

That's fine. After all, wouldn't a liberal, social democratic Bill on this subject place the emphasis primarily on helping those who desire and need asylum to acquire it as rapidly as possible? It would, but then this Bill is not liberal, it is "tough".

Most famously it removes the right to claim benefit from asylum-seekers whose cases are pending, giving them and their families vouchers for food and clothes instead. It also tells them where they must live. The idea, presumably, is to deter asylum-seekers, with the exception of those in extremis, from entering the country.

I have already written in this column that I do not think that so-called economic migration (which is how so many of us got here in the first place) is such a huge problem, if indeed it is a problem at all.

People who wish to better themselves by coming to Britain are not "abusers of our hospitality", as the Home Secretary puts it; and the prevention of any number of such people from coming to Britain (where they would probably thrive) is simply not worth the emiseration of one single "genuine" refugee.

So why is the Government doing it? Part of the problem is the post-Powell political consensus, largely unspoken, that racial harmony in Britain has been bought at the cost of stopping any further substantial immigration. Politicians of all parties fear that any large inward movement (or "swamping" as Margaret Thatcher liked to call it) will make race the kind of issue in Britain that it has become in France. Recent events in Dover, concerning Czech gypsies, are not regarded as reassuring.

And then there is the cost. I recently shared a table with the enlightened and intelligent chief executive of a big London borough council. On learning where I lived and my views on immigration, she loudly opined that she would be perfectly happy to be kind to asylum-seekers "provided they all come to live with you in Hampstead". Her borough could not afford them.

Perhaps this was the sort of situation that Jack Straw had in mind when he said that, "The strain [of asylum-seekers] is unbearable" for some councils. And he also referred to the system having to be "fair to taxpayers". But why, Jack, is the strain so "unbearable". Isn't it in fact perfectly bearable if we spread the cost? And I do not demand, as a taxpayer, that the asylum system is "fair" to me, any more than I demand that the war in Kosovo is. I merely demand that the asylum system is fair to those who are in need of asylum.

We can do better than this. If the Government were to say to the British people that it did not regard immigration as some great threat, that we had a moral obligation to those needing asylum and that this - not preventing economic migration - was the priority, would it really be risking some hideous race war?

So let's keep the bits of the Bill that speed up and clarify the appeals procedures, and let's just junk the rest. Labour MPs should go to the whips today and tell them that they simply cannot support the Bill as it stands. Because they know, as do I, what we would have said if Michael Howard had come up with something so irredeemably shabby.