How Cameron’s compassionate Britain forces children into destitution
If we're to take David Cameron at his word following his conference speech, the Tories are committed to two major principles in government: sound finance and compassion. With Labour veering off to the left, this term would demonstrate "the journey of the modern, compassionate, One Nation Conservative party".
So it's worth paying particular attention to the first bill the government is presiding over since the speech: the immigration bill, which gets its second reading in the Commons this afternoon. It has many appalling features, but it is worth focusing on just one of them: The plan to cut accommodation and financial support to failed asylum seekers 28 days after a decision against them.
The plan is obviously to create the "hostile environment" for immigrants and refugees Theresa May has promised, thereby discouraging more from arriving. It's a nonsense premise. Refugees don’t come to Britain for its benefits system or because they have done deep research on the ins and outs of local services provision. The Home Office knows it is nonsense because its own report demonstrated it.
It found asylum seekers were "more concerned about escaping from their country of origin than they were about which country they would eventually seek refuge in". The factors which decided where they claimed asylum were usually outside of their control: the ability to pay for long-distance travel or the destinations offered by agents smuggling them across borders.
Others made the decision based on where they had family members, their belief the UK was a free and tolerant country, previous links with the UK or their ability to speak English. The report found there was very little evidence that they had a detailed knowledge of "UK immigration or asylum procedures; entitlements to benefits in the UK; or the availability of work in the UK".
The policy is an incentive system for people who will not even know it exists and would likely disregard it if they did. But it is worthy of particular mention for how directly it contradicts Cameron's stated aims of sound finances and compassion.
It highlights a trick the government uses with alarming regularity: shifting costs and responsibilities onto local authorities and then acting like a blameless saint for the repercussions which ensue.
We saw it when the government first promised to start taking Syrian refugees in 2014. Its relocation scheme lasted five years, but its funding scheme lasted just one. Rather unsurprisingly, local authorities were not keen to take them up on the offer. Only two did. Six months later it emerged that despite the fanfare just 24 Syrian refugees had been welcomed as part of the scheme. Ministers blamed local councils like Sheffield, Manchester and Hull for refusing to take them. They, of course, were blameless, in creating the financial environment in which this would occur. Nothing to do with me, guv.
The same 12-month funding model was applied when Cameron U-turned on his refusal to take Syrian refugees this year. He dipped into the aid budget for the first year, but made no promises about where the funds would come from afterwards. Presumably he gambled that it will be left to local councils to somehow find the money once the media spotlight had passed on.
We are now seeing the same tactics in asylum seeker financial support. Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 places a duty of local authorities to safeguard the welfare of children in their area who are 'in need'. These accommodation and subsistence duties do not come with funding from central government. It's up to them to pay for it.
The government will argue that 28 days is enough time for the families to pack up and leave after a failed asylum claim. That's false. Only 30% of no-recourse-to-public-funds cases last less than three months. More than a third go on for between one and three years and 7.3% for over three years.
The truth is that many failed asylum seekers can’t go back because their countries are war zones. One might question how it is possible that a failed asylum seeker could come from a war zone, given what the asylum system is supposed to achieve, but the Home Office decision-making procedures have for some time been cruel, bureaucratically inept and logically unsound.
About a quarter of Home Office decisions to refuse asylum are overturned on appeal. One report by the Independent Family Returns Panel found 41% of families the government said had no right to remain in Britain were subsequently given leave to remain. So for the period in between one decision and another, these families will now be thrown onto the street.
Even where there are no pertinent appeals or obstacles to return, the process for leaving the UK can be long and painful. Refugee Action analysis found that for those who did return, an average of 17 weeks was required. That leaves 13 weeks of government-mandated destitution for them to deal with, during which they are far more likely to abscond than they were when we provided them with housing.
And that's just in the cases where they return home. Many others will become undocumented migrants, living on the streets and taking up work illegally. If they’re caught, it’s a criminal offence. So the £40,000-a-year cost of putting them in prison can be added to the taxpayer bill.
And who will the bill end up with? Local authorities.
The consultation said local authorities would be put "beyond doubt" that they’re not obliged to help rejected asylum seekers. That does not appear to have found its way into the bill. It's hard to tell – these things are written to be completely indecipherable. But it seems the government are relying on their analysis of the 2002 Immigration Act, which suggests local authorities are already exempt from supporting refused asylum seekers. It's clear as mud.
And it won’t even work. Labour tried to remove support from failed asylum seekers in 2004. It did exactly the opposite of what they wanted it to do. A pilot showed that 21% of those who receive support abscond. For those who had support removed, it was 39%.
Every time we seek to make the life of asylum seekers harder, it accomplishes nothing except our own moral deterioration. Nothing we do to them will be as severe as that which they face at home.
When asylum support fell in 2011, there was an increase in the number of applications. There is simply no evidence of a connection between asylum claims and the financial support offered during or after the claim process.
So the plan is financially and functionally unsound. But what of Cameron's second description of his party, that it would govern in the name of compassion?
It must be plain from this proposal that the government is engaged in the purposeful imposition of destitution upon children because of the immigration status of their parents. Even if local councils take on the burden of these families, how many weeks will they be forced to sleep on the streets between the removal of accommodation assistance and the intervention of the council? What guarantee will there be that these families will be aware enough of the Children's Act to be able to access the help at all?
They are throwing children onto the streets – into poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy and potential abuse – in order to sound tough on immigration. These are dark moral depths the government is operating in. It is a million miles away from the sparing rhetoric of Wednesday afternoon.