Lord Roger Roberts writes: Don’t try to win votes by coming down hard on migrants

This year is very special: it is the 20th anniversary of the Maastricht treaty. We have, since 1993, been European citizens, each of us endowed with the rights of free movement, settlement and employment across the Union. Of course, we are anxious about the lifting of barriers for some European Union workers at the beginning of next year. I suggest that we remove all hostility and suspicion and treat them as they are: fellow citizens of the Union. If we treat them otherwise, we are asking for trouble. Facts must take prominence; scaremongering must be stamped out.

But of course we treat refugees differently. They are not economic migrants. Asylum seekers do not travel to this country to find work. Instead, they petition us for protection from persecution in their own countries. However, this does not always happen; asylum seekers are not always treated with dignity and the compassion which many of them need. The whole field of immigration law in which they find themselves is a minefield. It needs simplifying and modifying. Some who submit applications have to wait months, if not years for an initial decision. We need to look at the Immigration Rules. They need to be clear and understandable to the main, ordinary user: the public.

At the close of 2012, we saw the effect of this minefield within the backlog of asylum applications, which stood at 28,500. The backlog peaked in 2000 when 120,400 cases were waiting to be dealt with. Things have improved, but the present situation remains unacceptable – especially when we consider that many exist on a mere £36.62 per week during this time. If you read some of the newspapers, you would think that they were given a £1 million cheque when they arrive at Dover – but they exist on a meagre pittance. They are barred from seeking work. They are unable to contribute or integrate: they are in a legal limbo.

It was found that 25% of those who appealed because they had been denied sanctuary in the UK were successful. The primary reason was that Home Office staff were wrongly making negative assessments. That is not to say that the policies are entirely wrong – often, case owners simply do not follow those policies. All employers – case owners, interviewers, interpreters and decision-makers – should be trained to the highest level, mentored and professionally developed. We could have a career structure for immigration officers so that we have the best qualified staff possible to deal with applications in the first instance. If we do not deal with them in the first instance, we are wasting a lot of taxpayers’ money and reducing asylum seekers and their children to massive anxiety. We do not say that the Home Office is not doing anything right. I am simply calling on the Government to review how Home Office employees are both recruited and trained. This must be improved. A lot of this backlog – and I have been to Croydon and seen the queue at six o’clock in the morning – could be removed if officers were properly trained.

Like many on these Benches, and in other parts of the House, I want our immigration department to be the envy of the world: firm yet fair, attracting skilled migrants but also sheltering those who are fleeing a well founded fear of persecution. Yes, we crack down on abuse, but we ensure that we meet – and I would like to see us surpass – our human rights obligations and commitments. I was delighted when the Minister for Justice, my colleague, the noble Lord McNally, said that he had no plan whatever to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. We must not withdraw. One of the great sayings that I relish is that of Dr Martin Luther King: that we seek to build ‘a society that can live with its conscience’.

I think most would agree that we should not prevent those who can from contributing to the good of society. It is bizarre to think that today we have a system of work in which only those who are ‘serious about finding employment’ can claim benefits, yet we deny the most needy asylum seekers – many of whom are forced into poverty, poor health and hunger by our own immigration laws – the dignity of paying their own way in life.

We can draw inspiration from the recast reception conditions for asylum seekers directive. I suggest that we consider applications for permission to work from those who have waited six months – not 12 months or more, as at present – so that after six months they will be eligible to take a job. The benefit would be enormous in many directions. Our friends in Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden all allow them to work in a nine-month period. If that is good enough for them, I suggest that we should consider it good enough for ourselves. Those are the obligations and steps that can be taken.

However, we also have a moral step to take. I was looking at the fourth Commandment. It says that we should ‘care for the stranger within our gates’. We must remember this.

Finally, I plead with the political parties: do not aim to win easy votes by coming down hard on migrants in a populist way. Let us instead have a sensible, rational discussion; keeping in mind at all times the tremendous contribution that migrants have made to this nation down the centuries, and the enormous benefits we harvest today. I suggest that we must care for the stranger within our gates.

* Lord Roberts of Llandudno is a Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords

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5 Comments

  • Roger Roberts/Wales 18th May '13 - 3:08pm

    better correct – it is the third commandment that declares our responsibility to care for the “strangerthat is within thy gates”.

  • Well said Roger. A great statement of a Liberal approach to this difficult issue.

  • We’ve long since given up trying to keep the Welsh out! 😉

  • Don’t you mean that the Welsh have long since given up trying to keep the Saeson out?

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