Balancing act

Being home secretary is the most difficult job in politics,
according to the Prime Minister. So where does that place Home
Office minister Beverley Hughes?

“Challenging, tough, absorbing” is how the former probation
officer and lecturer in social work, refers to her role. That is
one way of describing being minister for asylum seekers and
immigration. On one side stand the Daily Mail and its
allies, complaining of soft government policies failing to stem an
unstoppable flow of people through the Channel Tunnel. On the other
side, liberals complain of an illiberal government and argue that
its policies are designed to deter asylum seekers and pander to the
right. Unsurprisingly, Hughes uses the word “balance” several times
during our interview.

She stresses her title is properly that of minister for
citizenship, immigration and community cohesion at the Home Office.
And that, she says, means treating these issues as integral in
order to build strong communities and a balance of

But parliament is now debating the Nationality, Immigration and
Asylum Bill, which is the fourth nationality bill in a decade, each
of which has claimed to reform the system and each of which, say
critics, emphasises deterrence and does little to support the
rights of those coming to this country.

“I wouldn’t accept that,” says Hughes. “I can’t speak for the
Tories’ legislation but we have had two bills since 1997. Jack
Straw inherited a system that was coming apart and he had to act
very quickly to get hold of it. What we now have, with the current
bill, is the most radical and far-reaching reform of nationality,
immigration and asylum policy for years. What we are seeking is a
new balance between three objectives.

“The first is to bear down on abuse that sees large numbers of
people being trafficked. Second, we want to make it easier for
people who flee persecution to get here and, when here, to be able
to integrate much more efficiently. The third objective is to open
up legitimate opportunities for economic migration to support our
economy, to add value to what people do, but also to allow them to
acquire skills while they are here which may be useful for their
countries if they return home.”

But isn’t there a contradiction in wanting those from overseas to
come here to plug skills and labour gaps in our economy -Êboth
in service and other industries and in health and social care
-Êand the strong emphasise on deterrence?

No, says the minister, because that confuses immigration and asylum
policies. The government has already opened up the way for more
people to come here to work. Job-seeking cannot be used to
“subvert” (and so, bring into disrepute) the asylum system.

But why stop asylum seekers from working who have been here for six
months without their status being agreed, as Hughes recently
announced? This won’t affect new applications, she claims, because
decisions on status will now be taken within two months and appeals
heard within four months, under the government’s streamlining of

As to the importance of integration, educating children of asylum
seekers within the walls of the proposed accommodation centres
hardly sets an example.
“At the moment, claims by 60 to 70 per cent of people do not
succeed and they have to return home,” says the minister. “At the
point at which they claim, their children need a supportive
environment where health, education and advice can be offered,
their needs can be met, where the claim can be assessed on the
spot; and where everyone has the chance for sport or other
purposeful activity. At that time children will be offered greater
stability -Êbetter than being dispersed, where they attend a
school for only a short time before returning to their own
countries if the parents’ claim does not succeed.

“Under the proposed system, they will have the chance to learn
English and other skills, even if they do return home, in a system
that will be inspected by Ofsted and where they are taught by
qualified teachers. For children who will live here permanently,
their stay in the accommodation centre will be for only a few

But immigration and asylum both often involve an underworld; many
people disappear. Children are outside the purview of statutory
agencies, while some social workers do not see children without
settled status or who are here illegally as their

Children disappearing from official view are not something that
she’s aware of. She says: “It is not a matter that has been raised
with me by local authorities -Êthat a child lacking in
immigration status can’t be responded to because of that. Nor have
I seen evidence from elsewhere that local authorities are using the
immigration status of children to avoid their responsibilities
toward them.”

What she is concerned about – and is working on – is the
disproportionate number of asylum seekers’ children that councils
in London and the South East are working with. Greater co-operation
is needed with other authorities elsewhere so that councils meet
their responsibilities under the Children Act 1989, and so that the
task of doing so does not fall to a select few.

Hughes says: “We also have to see how we can return more children
home as that is, when all is considered, the best place for them.
But before that is even attempted we have to be assured about what
they are going back to and whether they will be safe.”

When she has to make a decision about cases does she bring anything
of the former probation officer and social work academic to

“One thing I do,” she says, “is always to get the fullest
information upon which to make a decision, and I suppose that comes
from my professional background. The other thing I have to do
-Êas I did in my past work -Êis to uphold a system that
is fair, rational and treats people who are in similar
circumstances consistently. I can’t and wouldn’t exercise my
responsibilities unfairly or emotionally.”

Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin has recently said on BBC Radio
Four’s The Long View that: “It’s just a great misfortune
that we can’t accommodate them [asylum seekers] all.”

But Hughes queries whether emigrating to a richer country like the
UKis the best way of improving the lot of people in developing
countries. “Does it mean that those who come will be only the
brightest, the fittest and those who can pay? What about others in
those countries who can’t make it? What we have to do is to help
those countries’ economies and improve quality of life there.

“Also, if that were our policy we’d be encouraging those
international gangs who encourage people to sell their homes, give
them the money and claim they can get people into the UK. We have
to make it clear that won’t work.

“The public knows it’s going on and the problems that arise are
often felt by the poorest and most hard-pressed communities. So
what we want is a balanced policy – clear about challenging abuse
but also about valuing the diversity of people. We have to find a
balance between competing imperatives.

“It is easy to characterise policies as right wing, pandering to
prejudice and so on. The progressive left can’t be seen to lag
behind on this issue but must be seen to be offering credible
solutions, not just on immigration and asylum but on community
cohesion, just as we had to in 1997 on the question of crime.

“What we have now is the first rational attempt to put forward a
coherent policy on these issues and offer some cohesion, while
standing out squarely against racism and in favour of valuing
diversity in our community.”

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