A former Home Office minister has said that the government’s “inhuman” approach to immigration will cause further problems and end up costing the taxpayer more money, and laid out a damning indictment of her former department’s direction of travel describing it as ‘profoundly depressing’ and at times ‘hideously wrong’.
The Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North accused ministers of ‘paying lip service’ to Wendy Williams’ Lessons Learned report on the Windrush scandal, saying that 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.
The former minister also said: “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”.
She criticised Home Office ministers’s 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 said 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 which she says 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.
The Home Office however, claim the site will have access to running water, electricity and sanitation before any asylum seekers are housed there. It also confirms that it will work to meet statutory healthcare obligations.
This is described as deeply worrying by the MP who added: “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 described it as a stain on the Home Office. However, 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. This in no way speeds anything up, in fact, arguably it slows things down”.
It will cost more, my fear is that this new system is actually going to just add time, complication and 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, brutal and muscular in your policies.
Ms Nokes also raised alarm about the fact that the Home Office had 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 get quite angry when the minster refers to our proud history (of refugee resettlement). Sure we have resettled a lot of people, but we’re not resettling any at the moment and no commitment for the future has been made.
Regarding 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’.
The former minister warned however, that the current rhetoric risked undermining the judiciary system adding: “Do we believe in the judicial process in this country?I think we do. I also 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.
Referring to the controversial charter flight to Jamaica 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.
Questioning the efficiency 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 is 13 years old and doesn’t allow discretion ?, do we believe in the rehabilitation of offenders ? I think we probably do”.
Among her proudest achievements during her time in office Ms Nokes says is the launch of the EU settlement scheme – the process for EU nationals in Britain to apply for post-Brexit immigration status – which she says 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.
While she enjoyed the challenge that came with being immigration minister Ms Nokes said it was ‘seriously stressful’ adding: “You were taking decisions hat 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”.
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 is such an immense 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 see 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 air, welcoming those most in need of protection via safe and legal routes, while stopping the 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.