Donald Macintyre: Now we all understand what drives people to seek asylum

'When we witness TV images of Afghans massing on the Pakistani border, we see why stability matters'
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The Independent Online

It was left to Ken Clarke – with his normal and admirable lack of delicacy – to describe David Blunkett's announcement on asylum in the Commons yesterday as a U-turn. Ministers hate the phrase, of course. But despite all Mr Blunkett's ritual praise for his predecessor, his announcement of a new asylum regime – just like that on cannabis last week – is a real and radical shift of policy.

The plan, in the long term, for new "accommodation centres" for 6,000 to 8,000 asylum-seekers a year – which if successful should be extended to the full 30,000 a year who arrive with nowhere to live – is a wholly new strategy. As Yasmin Alibhai-Brown argued persuasively on these pages yesterday, if they are decently run (a big if), they should be greatly preferable to housing in something vaguely and inappropriately known as "the community".

At least those in the centres should be protected from some of the hideous problems encountered by refugees in Glasgow's Sighthill estate – including a murder and several near fatal beatings. And from the fraudulent exploitation of landlords soaking up the taxpayers money while exposing asylum-seeking tenants to scandalous living conditions.

You don't have to look far between the the lines of excruciatingly abstract and bureaucratic verbiage in the report of the Dispersal Review, also published by the Home Office yesterday, to realise that the previous scheme went badly wrong. If even such an impenetrable document had been leaked a few months ago when there was no policy change in sight, it would have created a national scandal, and rightly so. There was something in the Tory charge yesterday that a system that ministers kept insisting around the time of the election was working perfectly well is now officially acknowledged to have been doing nothing of the kind.

Secondly, although Mr Blunkett had little more to say about this yesterday, he has had the good sense to realise that if the number of economic migrants using baseless claims of asylum is to be reduced, you have to do more than simply weed the "bogus" claimants out and return them to their place of origin. That there needs, in other words, to be a policy of actually welcoming some economic migration to jobs in the United Kingdom where there is a demand.

The so called "green card" system of work permits for highly skilled workers, usually professional and often high-tech, now intended to operate from January, was the brainchild of Jack Straw and his Immigration Minister, Barbara Roche. But in his speech at the Labour Party conference, Mr Blunkett went a good deal further, saying that he wanted to relax the work-permit regime for three other categories – seasonal workers, students currently compelled to apply for courses from outside the country and, perhaps most important, those seeking to work here in specific sectors in which there are labour shortages. The sooner those proposals are brought forward, the sooner Mr Blunkett's promise that this country is not a "fortress Britain" will be fulfilled.

Thirdly, Mr Blunkett has begun, as he indicated he would soon after reaching the Home Office, to dismantle the peculiarly degrading voucher system and replace it with one of smart cards. Given that the vouchers were rightly one of the principal targets for criticism from the NGOs, this is politically sensible as well as humane.

Mr Blunkett had no reassuring words for his backbenchers wanting the amounts to be increased from 70 per cent to 100 per cent of income support. But he did point out that one of the virtues of the new accommodation centres would be that they would provide, as well as health and education, full board, with the result that asylum-seekers should not be as cash-strapped as they are at present while they wait for their claims to be processed. And finally, he is promising to end the indefensible detention of asylum-seekers in prison.

So the Home Secretary announced yesterday a blueprint for what should be a more logical and humane system. Much of it follows the better practice in Europe. But there are some caveats. The first is that so far the new proposals apply only to a relatively modest proportion of asylum-seekers. Having secured £361m for the new centres and for additional adjudication staff, the Home Secretary will have to use all his – admittedly well-honed – skills in spending to negotiations to expand the programme in the way he intends. And if he can achieve this, there will be a painful transition period before the reforms are completed. Nothing Mr Blunkett announced yesterday is going to wish away the tensions in places like Sighthill for many months, even years.

But the even more important point to watch is this. Mr Blunkett was commendably free yesterday of the populism that has for too long disfigured the asylum debate. But that does not disguise the fact that he is being tough as well as tender. Within the bland language about "streamlining" asylum claims and appeals, with a system intended to return those without a just claim as fast possible, there lurks, as much as ever, a danger that those with a genuine claim to asylum may be summarily rejected, returned not only to destitution but to persecution. To argue for vigilance against that danger is not to pretend that tens of thousands – from Eastern Europe, for example, – seek asylum when they do not need it. But it is, perhaps, also to reflect a modest change in the political climate.

It was striking yesterday that the new shadow Home Secretary, Oliver Letwin, also refrained from pandering to the more xenophobic MPs behind him. A civilised, and by the standards of the modern Tory party, liberal man, Mr Letwin may be better suited to this portfolio than to anything economic where his record, to put it mildly, has been littered with own goals. Partly, too, this is in line with a conscious Opposition strategy of not opposing the Government where it agrees with it. But it may also reflect what, my guess is, is a small but significant shift of public opinion.

When people see television pictures of Afghan refugees massing on the border with Pakistan, they start to understand, first why stability in that and other countries matters if the world refugee problem is not to increase; but secondly what, my (perhaps wildly optimistic) guess is, may be a slowly growing realisation of what it means to be a genuine refugee or asylum-seeker. If that's right, then asylum could, at least for the moment, be somewhat defused as the disturbingly dominant party-political issue it constantly threatened to be during the general election.

In their own ways, Mr Blunkett and Mr Letwin both went some way to advancing that cause yesterday. And the Home Secretary's plan is clearly a real improvement on what went before. But it also means that the new adjudication staff he announced should have quality as well as quantity. There was never a good reason for unjustly turning down genuinely based asylum claims. In a climate when we all know more about the dangers that drive people to desert their homes for distant countries, there is even less excuse.