Grant asylum to migrants who arrive close to death – but don’t be surprised if it inspires more tragedies

The validity of asylum can't be decided by the deprivation endured en route

Earlier this week, a correspondent to The Independent expressed an opinion in print that seemed starkly at odds with much of what this paper stands for. He argued that the 34 survivors of that hellish container voyage from Zeebrugge – sick, and dehydrated as they were – should be refused entry to Britain.

Let me put that in a slightly more emotive way. An Independent reader had the temerity to say in print that 34 utterly desperate individuals – including women, children and babies – should be barred from their “dream”, despite all they had gone through on the way.

But you know what? I tended to agree with him. The validity of an asylum claim cannot be influenced one way or another by the deprivation someone has endured en route. There was much talk, when these people were discovered, of “trafficking”, which would make them the victims. But people who pay for their passage, however exploitative the deal, are not “trafficked” in my book. They are parties to a deal that is seen as mutually advantageous and whose purpose is to evade someone else’s law.

Nor is my hard heart melted by anything I have learned since. On Wednesday, the BBC published on its website an interview with one of the 34 – obtained, I would hazard, courtesy of a sympathetic lawyer, since the Home Office has, quite properly, refused to give reporters any details.

Lawyerly assistance seems also to be reflected in much of the language – which presses precisely those buttons that need to be pressed for an asylum claim. There was religious persecution and fear of death if returned. But such language is coming from an adult who also admits to being illiterate. I can envisage a few integration problems there.

But now for the really difficult part. Even as I write this, I wonder whether such a harsh face is what we want to present, as a country, to others. Is it, well, British for decisions on such matters to be governed only by rigid legalism? Or should we not, given our comparative wealth, be generous enough to pour in a little milk of human kindness? Should there not always be a possibility of discretion on humanitarian grounds – discretion for which this desperate group, who have already lost one of their number, could surely make a persuasive claim, especially if they fear for their lives in their home country?

Yet granting these families asylum – or, what I suspect will happen, the cop-out option of “leave to remain” – inevitably widens the holes in our already porous border legislation further. What signal does it send to others? Get to a British port, and the closer to death you are, the better your chances of staying? And what of the 15 picked up in a lorry in Somerset just days later? Do they warrant less sympathy because they are fitter and got further? How many such stowaways get through?

I want to go back to the international outcry that erupted after more than 350 would-be migrants died in a fire and shipwreck off Lampedusa. The television footage of survivors moved a conscience-stricken Italy to arrange a state funeral and posthumous citizenship for those who perished. Since then, though, tens of thousands more destitute people have arrived on Italian shores and many others must have lost their lives on the way.

Our “container” problem is small by comparison. But if even Independent readers and writers find it hard to show unconditional compassion, then as a country we should at least have the grace not to offer haughty liberal prescriptions to the people of those countries, such as Italy and Malta, where the dilemma posed by would-be migrants is infinitely more acute.

Is it a government website I see before me? Actually, no

A little while back, I needed to renew my EU health insurance card and went to the GP surgery to find out how to do it. Helpful as ever, the receptionist pointed crossly to the cluttered noticeboard. I unearthed details of the relevant NHS website, noting a printed warning that other, similar, sites might charge a fee.

Intrigued, I surfed the web, to discover a whole world of essentially rip-off websites that could be confused with their government counterparts and – of course – skim a fee for apparently providing additional services. I’ve recently heard Transport for London adverts on local radio, warning of unauthorised congestion charge services. Such sites are highly confusing – similar logos, the same forms, the same appearance as the Government’s – and if you alight on one unawares, you can already be keying in your credit card before realising that the process can be obtained for free.

This can’t be right – any of it. Those offering “extras” will no doubt say they help people to navigate the system and provide “added value” by their additional services. In that case, why not make it clear that the site is not a government one?

With more government departments directing people, including benefit claimants, to the web, many of those using these alternative sites will be among those least able to afford it. Why is it not illegal to offer these services without a warning that the main process can be obtained free?

The Scottish debate’s TV blackout: a conspiracy theory

Earlier this month, you would have found me on holiday in Sweden, desperately searching the internet for a live stream of the Scottish referendum debate. As furious comments on social media confirmed, this was a frustrating experience: the debate was broadcast only in Scotland, and STV’s attempts at streaming crashed under the demand.

The BBC, which will broadcast the second debate on Monday, is not going to make the same error. The duel will be screened live on BBC2 nationwide, and on the World Service, and on the web. It will be repeated on BBC1 at midnight. I have to say that, for a broadcaster not averse to plugging itself, the BBC seems a bit reticent about all this (I had to winkle out the details), but still it seems we Sassenachs will be allowed to look.

Blanket exposure for the rematch prompts an ignoble thought. Might the limited airing of the first debate have been a precaution in case Salmond shone? Now the powers-that-be know Darling can hold his own, the rest of us – English, Welsh, Northern Irish – can hear the separatist seducer with minimum risk. Or maybe I have misunderstood.

We don’t need a subspecies of doctor – just cheaper ones

Over the past decade or so, we’ve had to accept a growing subspecies of professional (yes, I know they won’t like being called that), who ekes out the high-priced skills of the fully qualified. Thus the police have their community support officers; the schools have their teaching assistants; the hospitals their nursing assistants and GP surgeries employ super-nurses (or semi-doctors), called nurse practitioners.

Now, it seems, the division of responsibility in the NHS is to become yet more complicated with the expansion of sub-doctor jobs for “associate physicians”. Who dreams up these titles? No wonder the UK has a productivity problem.

I wish I believed that all these assistants and associates were as useful as their employers insist they are. For two nursing or teaching assistants I would take one “proper” nurse or teacher any day. If we need more home-grown doctors, there are two ways of achieving that without introducing another branch. One is to accelerate the overspecialised training; another – take a deep breath – would be, over time, to lower the pay. UK doctors are paid more than almost any of their colleagues in Europe. The addition of physician associates may bring this about in a back-door sort of way, but the front door is usually a better way to go.