Phil Woolas: You Ask The Questions

The Immigration Minister answers your questions, such as 'Is our immigration system unmerciful?' and 'How will the recession affect it?'
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The Independent Online

John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, says that your handling of immigration has been immature and unmerciful. How do you feel about being criticised by such a respected moral leader? LEWIS HARPER, Liverpool

As a member of the Anglican Church, let alone a minister and MP, I take it very seriously. It is important we have this debate but I reject the criticisms. The right moral thing to do is to have a fair and efficient immigration and asylum system. The rules are the same for everyone. We have one of the fairest systems in the world, with decisions made by an independent judge and cases turned round as quickly as possible. Morally, we must look to the wider world and solve the causes of economic migration.

You said Boris Johnson was naïve just for commissioning a study into the possibility of having an amnesty for London's illegal immigrants. How can studying the issue be bad? CHARIS PAYNE, Ampleforth, NORTH YORKSHIRE

It is naïve because an amnesty and the suggestion of an amnesty will create problems not solve them. To grant or suggest an amnesty creates a significant "pull" factor to the UK, profits the people traffickers, causes more misery and makes it more difficult to help the persecuted.

Who are the "vested interests" that want unjustified asylum-seekers to get into the country? What is their secret agenda? BROOKE LAWRENCE, Carlisle

It is not secret. Some legal advisers and special interest groups play the system to delay removals without justification. This offers false hope. In the past three years, the courts have found nearly 100 cases of vexatious judicial review. I want to put a stop to last-ditch judicial reviews, unfounded asylum claims and disruption of removals. When an independent judge tells people they have no right to stay we expect them to go home voluntarily.

Do you really think you can stop the population reaching 70 million in your capacity as Immigration minister? You said yourself that most of the relevant levers are outside your control. ALEXANDRA MORAN, Belfast

The power and flexibility of the points-based system makes it the best tool to control the numbers of migrants coming to the UK to work. This system means only those with the skills Britain needs can come – and no more. If the new rules had been in place last year, there would have been 12 per cent fewer people coming in through the equivalent route.

You see the primary purpose of immigration policy as being "to reassure the public" that the Government is in control of immigration. Isn't that saying that public perception is more important than actually doing the right thing? LEI YUAN, Glasgow

We cannot have a progressive policy in the country based only on public perceptions of the system. I find it depressing that being "in control" of immigration is seen as synonymous with "ending" immigration. It is not.

Why did you cancel the visa of the former Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, when the Home Office has not acted on demands from other countries such as Russia seeking the extradition of its nationals? PETER ROSE, Overton, HAMPSHIRE

I cannot comment on the individual case but the Home Secretary has the power to revoke a visa if the circumstances of an individual changes after their visa was issued.

Does the BNP's strength in your Oldham constituency affect how you think about immigration? ISAAC MORRISON, Oldham

So far, thank goodness, we have beaten them. As you know, my seat is a Labour-Liberal Democrat marginal with an ethnic minority population greater than my majority. This is not about pandering to the right-wing. It is about having a working policy that carries confidence precisely so that we can be fair as a society to immigrants. Read the Cantle report about the Oldham riots. It is fair to say that the lesson of the BNP's success in Oldham was in part because we didn't talk about the issues enough.

What mark out of 10 would you give your predecessor, Liam Byrne? Was he too soft on the issue of immigration? TARA WALL, Leeds

I would give him 10 out of 10. My predecessor began the biggest changes to our immigration system for a generation and it is my job to see these continue. Liam is one of the best political and policy leaders in Government. His drive, energy and intelligence are remarkable. We are different characters, of course, but then we don't want our politicians to be all the same do we?

In 2003, you said attacks on whites were not condemned as forcefully as attacks on ethnic minorities. Do you still think discrimination against whites is underplayed? ELISE FLETCHER, Compton

Racial violence is abhorrent in any form and something we must stamp out in British society. We are committed to supporting victims no matter what their background or ethnicity. I agree with Oona King, who pointed out to a largely white Parliament that black on Chinese, Asian on white, white on black and other discrimination exists. Condemn it all and be seen to do so and we will heal our society of it.

Do you mind the adjective "gaffe-prone" being put in front of your name? SHANNON PUGH, Kensal Green, LONDON

I would prefer outspoken! I'm going to be criticised whatever I say. I consider myself pretty straight-talking and I'm an unapologetic communicator. We have to show the public we are human. Politics is trashed every day and motives are cynically interpreted. Politics is a great cause and an honourable calling. But we will chuck it away if we allow the reactionary anti-politics to continue. That's why we have to get stuck in.

How will the recession affect immigration? LILY PEASE, Northampton

Migration levels always fluctuate but our tough new points system is flexible. We can raise or lower the bar according to the needs of the labour market. Since 1997, the Government has helped to create more than three million jobs in the UK economy and, although migrant workers have made a welcome contribution, it is worth remembering that nine in 10 workers in the UK are British citizens.

How serious will unemployment get over the next year or so? What can be done to reduce it? AARON KAUR, Dunstable, BEDFORDSHIRE

Unemployment is always serious. When someone loses their job it is a blow for them personally, as well as for their family and community. We are committed to doing everything we can to get the unemployed back to work as quickly as possible. Anyone who is worried about the current downturn needs to know there are jobs out there and that the Government is working with employers and providing frontline services to help people find them.

New Labour is dead. Should we mourn its passing or is it good to get back to traditional Labour values? DARREN BURNS, Felixstowe, SUFFOLK

It is a different world to 1997 but the core idea (which was John Smith's point) that you can best achieve social justice with a strong economy and a strong economy with social justice is as crucial as it ever was.

Do you want to be Prime Minister? REBECCA LUCAS, Durham

No! Not on your life.

How did you feel when you got custard-pied at a student protest against the government's immigration policies? JEREMY SANDES, Ross-On-Wye, HEREFORDSHIRE

My first thought was fear (you don't know what is heading towards you in that split second). My second was, "thank God it's cream" and my third was "when I was a student protester we forced Barclays out of South Africa – who are these idiots?"

You got pulled from Question Time for being too controversial and were replaced by Tony McNulty. Is he writing the answers to these questions, too? JODIE KAY, Harrogate, NORTH YORKSHIRE

Judge for yourself!