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Home Secretary Priti Patel announces 'most comprehensive overhaul of asylum system in decades' - but we've heard it all before


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The thorny issue of people seeking asylum in the UK and how best to cope with those that arrive in small boats on Kent's shores continues to dominate the news agenda.

KM Group political editor Paul Francis gives his take on a week in politics...

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There comes a time when every Home Secretary has to announce plans to tackle the asylum seeker crisis.

These announcements are usually wrapped up in rhetoric designed to give the impression the government is going to get tough in a way that it hasn’t before and the measures it is looking at will sort out the problem once and for all.

Priti Patel is not the first - and in all likelihood won’t be the last - Home Secretary to declare she has the solution to a problem that has proved politically intractable to her predecessors.

In her own words, she pledged “the most comprehensive overhaul of the asylum system in decades, with a radical set of reforms to fix the broken system”.

Reforms always are always referred to as radical by politicians - there's no such thing as just ordinary reforms.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has announced a major overhaul of the asylum system - but does it sound familiar?
Home Secretary Priti Patel has announced a major overhaul of the asylum system - but does it sound familiar?

Her plan would be “fair but firm” and those who had no right to be in the UK would be dealt with accordingly.

Sounds familiar? Heard it somewhere before? That’s probably because you have.

Back in 2005, then Conservative leader and Kent MP Michael Howard declared immigration controls were “chaotic and out of control”.

He would bring in his own “fair but firm” system, saying: "The people who claim asylum under the present system are those who can afford to pay the people smugglers.”

Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett invoked the same language and rhetoric as his government struggled to respond to an influx of asylum seekers crossing from France to the UK. He too spoke of reforms that would be firm but fair.

Lord Howard was another Tory who attempted to tackle the asylum issue
Lord Howard was another Tory who attempted to tackle the asylum issue

The key challenge the present government faces over its plan to return asylum seekers to countries where they could have made a claim is that nothing can force those other countries to do so.

By her own admission, the government will have to rely on collaboration with other countries, while formalising arrangements under bilateral agreements seems a distant prospect.

The regular images of dinghies arriving on beaches around the Kent coast clearly indicate that whatever controls we have, they are not enough to deter the criminal gangs exploiting those seeking a better life.

The claim made by Priti Patel that the UK has, as a result of Brexit, regained control of its borders is fanciful when, on a single day this week, 183 people were detained after being picked up from boats in the English Channel.

But doing something rather than nothing is not an option for the government.

Thousands of people have made the dangerous journey to Kent in small boats this year
Thousands of people have made the dangerous journey to Kent in small boats this year

The other eye-catching proposal on asylum was the suggestion that would-be asylum seekers could be sent abroad to have their claims assessed.

According to reports, other countries could be paid to have asylum seekers sent to them while they are processed. Gibraltar was among the possible places.

Quite what would persuade other countries to sign up for this - other than the cash - is hard to see.

And it is not an original idea, either.

Back in 2004, the Conservative party committed to the policy, with Shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin declaring at the party conference in Blackpool: "We will replace the present asylum system - in its entirety - with a system of quotas for genuine refugees and the offshore processing of all claims, to deter all but genuine claims for protection from persecution."

Wonder what happened to that?

Back in the years when the issue of growing numbers of asylum seekers were beginning to exert a financial pressure on the county council, the Conservative-controlled authority considered its own “radical overhaul” of dealing with the issue.

Discussions took place behind closed doors about the viability of chartering planes to fly back those whose claims to be considered as migrants were dismissed.

It never came to fruition.

This is largely because by the time they came up with it, the numbers had shot up at such a rate that an entire fleet of airplanes would have been needed.

Seats in the council chamber at KCC's County Hall will be up for grabs in May
Seats in the council chamber at KCC's County Hall will be up for grabs in May

Meanwhile, county councillors standing in the county council election in May are required by law not to do anything which might be construed as politically partial over the official campaign period.

This usually refers to putting out press releases in the county council’s name or using the council’s facilities for party political meetings.

The guidance this year also covers virtual meetings, with councillors being told party political backdrops should “not be displayed or be visible while participating in a publicly webcast council meeting” citing as an example “party political images being used as background effects during Teams Live Events".

Although given the fact that there are virtually no meetings scheduled over the next few weeks this ought to be not much of a risk.

Head to our politics page for expert analysis and all the latest news from your politicians and councils.

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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