The Home Office is getting worse at managing the asylum system – and only has itself to blame

Labour is justified in asking: if the system is broken, why has it taken the Tories the intervening eleven years to attempt to fix it?

Cathy Newman
Thursday 25 March 2021 14:00
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<p>‘In the coming weeks, we’ll all be able to see if membership of the EU is to blame for the chaos in the system, or whether the problem lies closer to home’</p>

‘In the coming weeks, we’ll all be able to see if membership of the EU is to blame for the chaos in the system, or whether the problem lies closer to home’

A lot has happened since David Cameron’s Conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats launched their coalition programme for government in 2010.

The former prime minister has a few little local difficulties with a financial services company. The former deputy prime minister has a new challenge on his hands with a global tech company. But some things never change and so it was that 18 words in the coalition programme for government came back to haunt the Tories this week.

The home secretary, Priti Patel, said the asylum system was “broken”. The words were far less dramatic in the coalition agreement, but the import was the same. “We will explore new ways to improve the current asylum system to speed up the processing of applications,” the Conservatives and Lib Dems agreed – in diplomatic language attempting to bridge a yawning gulf in policy on the subject.

Eleven years later, the system still needs reform. New ways to improve it are still being explored and Labour is justified in asking: if the system is broken, why has it taken the Tories the intervening eleven years to attempt to fix it?

In fact, the Home Office seems to have got worse at managing the problem during the Conservatives’ time in power. Ten years ago, there were almost 42,000 returns and removals of asylum seekers whose claims had been rejected. In 2019, that had fallen to just over 19,000.

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I put that to the immigration minister, Chris Philp, on last night’s Channel 4 News. He excused the performance on the grounds that the UK’s hands were tied while we were still in the European Union.

So I asked, repeatedly, how many failed asylum applicants had been sent back across the Channel since Britain left the EU. The answer came that there was none. But in the coming weeks, we’ll all be able to see if membership of the EU is to blame for the chaos in the system, or whether the problem lies closer to home – or, indeed, the Home Office.

Patel herself pointed the finger at “lefty lawyers” and “do-gooders” in a speech, last year; accusing them of bogging everything down in “endless legal claims”. Yet, since 2008, the number of first-time appeals has actually decreased from 200,000 – to around 40,000 a year.

Meanwhile, the human cost is enormous. About 64,000 people are currently waiting in dispersal accommodation while their claims are processed. The longer they have to wait, the more complicated their situations become – and the more intractable the legal repercussions.

So, how to fix the problem? When the UK was in the EU, the Dublin regulation applied, meaning asylum seekers could legally be returned to the first safe country they entered. In the absence of that, or any replacement protocol, the UK must rely on bilateral deals with our “European friends”, as Boris Johnson likes to call them.

Not a single one of these has been signed but Patel tried to up the ante on Wednesday day by appealing to EU leaders’ sense of “moral duty”. The problem with this is that many argue the UK has lost the moral high ground.

Under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, the UK has given a home to just 20,000 Syrians displaced by war and Patel scrapped her predecessor’s annual target of 5,000 resettlement places a year. By contrast, Angela Merkel rallied her compatriots with the cry of: “We can do this!” As a result, Germany has welcomed more than half a million Syrians.

There are other foreign-policy decisions, too, which threaten to undermine a call to the Europeans to locate their morals. As his backbenchers protest that millions of Yemenis face famine, Boris Johnson rushes to insist the UK’s cuts to international aid are temporary. But it’s a far cry from the “liberal Conservative foreign policy” set out in Cameron’s touchy-feely manifesto back in 2010.

That probably feels a long time ago to him, too. But the many problems he bequeathed his Etonian frenemy remain. The broken asylum system is just one of many, many problems neither Johnson nor his predecessor could have foreseen. And what’s the betting Patel will be reshuffled out of the Home Office before the necessary repairs are carried out? I’m off to the bookies.

Cathy Newman presents Channel 4 News, weekdays, at 7pm

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