Caroline Nokes, who left her role as immigration minister in July 2019, laid out a damning indictment of her former department’s direction of travel, describing it as “profoundly depressing” and at times “hideously wrong”.
In an interview with The Independent, the Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North accused ministers of “paying lip service” to Wendy Williams’ Lessons Learned report on the Windrush scandal – which broke while she was in office – and said they were failing to put people at the heart of Home Office policy, as was recommended in the review.
The MP condemned the approach that the minister Chris Philp and the current home secretary, Priti Patel, have taken to the asylum system. She said the increasingly “brutal” response risked “whipping up an unpleasant reaction to some very vulnerable people”, as well as creating legal and financial problems for ministers in the future.
Ms Nokes said commitments to change the Home Office following the Windrush scandal had been “torn up, disregarded and rendered clearly completely irrelevant” when making decisions about asylum seekers.
“I don’t know where we go next from here. I think it’s a great shame that they aren’t being more compassionate towards some really vulnerable people,” the former minister said.
She also criticised Home Office ministers’ recent references to the legal representatives who challenge deportations as “activist lawyers”, and insisted that the legal system has an important role to play in the removal process, as well as condemning her predecessor for failing to make ongoing commitments to global refugee resettlement.
Ms Patel announced in October that her department was going to fix the “fundamentally broken” asylum system in the UK to make it "firm and fair”, describing it as the biggest overhaul of the system in decades.
As part of this, ministers have drawn up plans to establish a swift deportation process for removing asylum seekers to EU countries after the Brexit transition period, and to place those waiting on their claims in a number of “camps”.
One of the camps is to be located in Ms Nokes’s constituency, on Ministry of Defence land that she said has no electricity or water mains. The 500 asylum seekers there will not be provided with healthcare and will be in earshot of gunfire from a nearby gun range, she added.
The Home Office claimed the site would have access to running water, electricity and sanitation before asylum seekers were housed there. It also said it would work to meet statutory healthcare obligations.
The MP described this as “deeply worrying”, adding: “We know these people are going to have had huge trauma. It fills me with horror that our supported asylum accommodation processes have gone so hideously wrong that they can’t even recognise that this is not a decent way to accommodate people.
“The Home Office went through so much pain over Windrush; the home secretary herself has described it as a stain on the Home Office. And yet it appears that we don’t care that putting asylum seekers in a camp with no water might also be regarded as a shameful stain on the Home Office.”
Criticising the department’s plans to deem asylum claims from people who have travelled through a safe third country as “inadmissible”, Ms Nokes warned that it would likely backfire, costing more, increasing delays in the system and risking failure to follow due process.
“The reality is that people will still arrive and claim asylum, but we’re trying to create two classes of asylum seeker: those whose application will be processed and those whose won’t. I don’t see that this in any way speeds anything up. In fact, arguably it slows things down,” she said.
“It will cost more – that’s my analysis. My fear is that this new system is actually going to just add time, add complication, and therefore all that does is add cost. So I don’t think that this is any solution.
“The asylum budget was always a battle for resources, and it’s an incredibly hard nut to crack, but I don’t think you crack it by being inhuman towards people; I don’t think you crack it by being brutal and muscular in your policies.”
Ms Nokes also raised alarm about the fact that the Home Office has made no commitment to restart the process of refugee resettlement to the UK, after plans to welcome 5,000 individuals to the country in 2020 were abandoned because of the coronavirus pandemic. Other countries such as France, Spain and Italy have reopened their resettlement programmes.
“I totally get Covid, but there’s been no affirmation of what happens in 2021," she said. "The resettlement scheme was ground-breaking and full credit to David Cameron for putting it in place and Theresa May for seeing it through, but the stark reality is there now appears to be no firm, ongoing commitment to global refugee resettlement.
“I get quite angry when the minister refers to our proud history [of refugee resettlement]. Sure, we’ve resettled a lot of people, but we’re not resettling any at the moment and he’s not made any commitment for the future.”
Asked about the Home Office’s recent criticisms of “lefty” and “activist” lawyers, whom ministers have accused of “frustrating" the department’s attempts to deport people, Ms Nokes said she believed any minister had “really good cause to be frustrated” when people “try one route and then they try another and then they try a third”.
But the former minister warned that the current rhetoric risked undermining the judiciary system, adding: “Do we believe in the judicial process in this country? I think we do. And I think it’s quite problematic trying to turn a whole profession into your enemy.
“You have to be able to look at a decision and know that it’s been fairly scrutinised and that the decision is the right one, and that’s where the legal system comes in.”
Referencing the controversial charter flight to Jamaica earlier last month, which saw 35 foreign national offenders (FNO) taken off the flight in the days and hours before when it emerged they had valid legal claims, Ms Nokes questioned whether ministers had given enough attention to ensuring each deportee was being removed lawfully.
“I used to have to go through the FNO flights to Jamaica and look and memorise every single case. I had to know the factsheet. I asked Philp whether he and the home secretary had personally looked at every single case and he didn’t answer that bit of the question,” she said.
Questioning the efficacy of the UK Borders Act 2007, which states that any non-British citizen who is sentenced to more than a year in jail should be deported from the country, Ms Nokes said: “The reality is a lot of these people are quite serious offenders, but not all of them.
“An 18-year-old might be sentenced for a drug offence for 13 months, and then nobody bothers to follow it up for years because the Home Office systems are so under-resourced, then years later somebody goes: ‘This person has done 13 months inside, well that’s a deportation order’.
“If you have somebody that serves their sentence and then has an unblemished record, should we still be relying on a piece of legislation that’s 13 years old and doesn’t allow discretion? Do we believe in rehabilitation of offenders? I think we probably do.”
Reflecting on her own time in the Home Office, which lasted 18 months until July 2019, when she was “unceremoniously hoofed” by Boris Johnson when he became prime minister, Ms Nokes said her “single biggest regret” was “not picking up on the scale of the Windrush scandal faster”.
“It was all breaking literally as I arrived, and I regret taking at face value some of the reassurances that these were isolated cases. And yet Amelia Gentleman would find a new one every day – this wasn’t isolated,” she said.
Among her proudest achievements during her time in office is the launch of the EU settlement scheme – the process for EU nationals in Britain to apply for post-Brexit immigration status – which she said was “proof that the Home Office could introduce a system that was slick, efficient, would work”, citing the fact that 4.6 million people have so far applied.
But while she enjoyed the challenge that came with being immigration minister, Ms Nokes said it was “seriously stressful”, adding: “You were taking decisions that would impact upon somebody’s living conditions, whether they were being deported back to a foreign country where the situation was sub-optimal, and that always stressed me beyond belief.”
And the situation for vulnerable immigrants is worse now, she believes, citing the apparent unwillingness of today’s Home Office to take in child refugees who are stranded in Europe, a move that was previously facilitated – albeit in smaller numbers than had been hoped – under the Dubs Amendment, which ended earlier this year.
“That’s such a sea change from the days when I had to discuss and negotiate with Alf Dubs himself, who tells such a powerful story,” Ms Nokes said. “We look back at the Kindertransport with a feeling of immense national pride. And yet it seems like the really powerful messages of people like Alf Dubs are just being ignored.
“I hope that the Conservative Party sees the light and recognises its responsibilities to vulnerable people around the globe.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are fixing our broken asylum system to make it firm and fair – welcoming those most in need of protection via safe and legal routes, while stopping abuse of the system.
“In the last five years the UK has been amongst the top five resettlement countries worldwide, and has resettled more refugees from outside Europe than any other EU member state.”
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