Conservative conference: Priti Patel takes aim at migration ‘do-gooders’ as she launches asylum reform plan

Home secretary’s attempt to group ‘lefty lawyers’ with people-traffickers branded absurd

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Sunday 04 October 2020 17:45 BST
Priti Patel says asylum system is 'broken' and promises reform

Home Secretary Priti Patel has launched an attack on human rights “do-gooders” and “lefty lawyers” who she claimed were united with people-traffickers in wanting to prevent reform of the UK’s “broken” asylum system.

In a speech to the Conservative Party’s virtual conference, Ms Patel unveiled plans for the biggest overhaul in a generation of the asylum system, to prevent illegal migrants from making “endless” appeals against removal and allow immediate expulsion of those with no claim to refugee status.

But her broadside at those defending migrants was branded “absurd” by one immigration barrister, who said lawyers had been calling for reform of the system for decades.

And the British Red Cross said it was in favour of reform to prevent asylum seekers being  “left in limbo, unable to work and living in destitution”, while the Refugee Council said change was needed to speed up the system.

“We agree with the home secretary’s analysis that the current asylum system is broken and leaves vulnerable people languishing for months on end, fearful for their future and unable to start rebuilding their lives," said Refugee Council head of advocacy Andy Hewett.

“It’s incredibly important that asylum claims are processed within a reasonable time frame, that each case is assessed fairly, and that people seeking asylum are treated with compassion and respect while they await their decision.”

Ms Patel said that the UK’s current asylum system was “enabling international criminal trade” by encouraging migrants to put themselves in the hands of gangs for perilous journeys across the English Channel in small boats.

Once in the UK, vulnerable migrants were stuck in a backlog of more than 40,000 people waiting for decisions on asylum claims which can take more than a year at an annual cost to UK taxpayers of over £1bn, she said.

She promised legislation next year to deliver a “firm and fair” system addressing moral, legal and practical problems with the system which she said had been neglected through “decades of inaction” by successive governments.

And she vowed to unleash the “full force” of crime and intelligence agencies against people-smuggling gangs.

In a pre-emptive assault on expected criticism of her hardline approach, Ms Patel said that it was driven by “compassion” for those genuinely in need of refuge. 

The Conservatives had a proud history of offering sanctuary to Ugandan Asians like her parents in the 1970s, victims of the Syrian War and democracy protesters in Hong Kong, she said.

 “No doubt those who are well-rehearsed in how to play and profit from the broken system will lecture us on their grand theories about human rights," said Ms Patel.

“And yet they seem to care little about the rights of the most vulnerable who are fleeing persecution, oppression and tyranny…

"Those defending the broken system – the traffickers, the do-gooders, the lefty lawyers, the Labour Party – are defending the indefensible."

Barrister Alasdair Mackenzie of Doughty Street Chambers said it was “absurd” to suggest that immigration lawyers could be grouped with people-traffickers as defenders of the existing system.

He told The Independent: “Lawyers have been calling for reform for decades.

“If she is genuinely serious about wanting reform, I and others would be very interested in sitting down with her to discuss it."

And Mike Adamson, chief executive of the British Red Cross said:  "Like the home secretary, we want to see a more compassionate asylum system. 

“But this compassion needs to be applied to anyone arriving in the UK in search of safety.  We should not judge how worthy someone is of asylum by how they arrived here, especially when the rules are so narrow."

He called for any reforms to include the introduction of more safe routes to Britain, so that people are not forced to risk their lives crossing the Channel in dinghies or hiding themselves in lorries.

Mr Hewett said that the home secretary was wrong to suggest that small boat crossings were illegal, as the Refugee Convention makes clear that people fleeing war, violence and persecution are entitled to do so by irregular routes.

He called on Ms Patel to tackle dangerous crossings by restarting the UK’s resettlement programme, dismantling rules preventing parents from being reunited with children in the UK and introducing humanitarian visas for refugees to travel safely.

Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “The Tories talk about a broken immigration system, but they have been in power for a decade and are the political party that broke it.

“Recent experience suggests they have not learned any lessons at all, with unconscionable, absurd proposals about floating walls and creating waves in the English Channel to push back boats and sending people thousands of miles away to process claims. The truth is the Tories are devoid of compassion and competence."

Ms Patel said Labour had warned that lives would be lost as a result of the changes she is pursuing.

But she said: “Lives are already being lost.

“So do not let them peddle a false narrative that Conservatives do not have a proud history of providing a safe haven to those most in need.”

Declaring herself ready to bear abuse on social media and mockery of her accent by Tony Blair’s former director of communications Alastair Campbell, she said: “As Conservatives, we do not measure the depth of our compassion in 280 characters on Twitter, but in the actions we take and the choices we make.”

“I will not be complicit in an international criminal trade in asylum seekers, elbowing the most vulnerable to the side,” she said.

“Reform the system, prosecute the criminals, protect the vulnerable.

“That is what a firm, but fair asylum system should look like, and that is what I intend to deliver.”

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