8 August 2023

Is the Government finally getting a grip on the ‘broken’ asylum system?

By Chloe Dobbs

As the first group of migrants boarded the Bibby Stockholm barge yesterday afternoon, Rishi Sunak issued a renewed pledge to ‘leave no stone unturned’ in his mission to stop small boats crossing the channel.

In a video message, the Prime Minister talks up his new Illegal Immigration Bill and warns would-be asylum seekers that if they enter the UK illegally they will not be able to stay, ‘no matter how hard you try’.

This is all punchy politics, of course, particularly on an issue where the Tories see a very clear dividing line with Labour. That much was evident in the weekend’s papers, with Suella Braverman claiming the opposition is marshaling a ‘web of cronies’ to frustrate government policy. In the same vein, the Tories seized on reports of a Labour councillor in Newcastle offering to use human rights law to help keep asylum seekers in Britain (she has since taken down the offending TikTok video).

Here, clearly, is an issue on which the Conservatives can see clear blue water between themselves and a Labour Party whose instincts on asylum and immigration are out of step with a great many British voters.  

In that context, the sight of a handful of asylum seekers stepping onto the Bibby Stockholm could be seen as a bit of a coup – hence the video from Mr Sunak trumpeting his tough approach.

In truth though, the barge battle simply underscores the scale of the problem they are trying to tackle. For while the coverage so far has generally centred on whether or not it is legal or humane to detain people on a boat, what it really highlights is how difficult it has been for the Government to come up with even modest changes to deal with the asylum backlog. 

For even when it is eventually full, the Bibby Stockholm will only hold 500 people – less than 1% of the 51,000 or so currently languishing in hotels at a cost to taxpayers of around £6m a day. Those kind of figures perhaps explain why the Government’s own factsheet for the Illegal Immigration Bill includes the startling admission that ‘the asylum system is broken’.

In fairness to the Government, it does have concrete plans to house thousands more asylum seekers at three ex-military sites. However, these too have been beset by an almost comical series of delays. Last week a combination of bad wi-fi and water supply issues stopped the Home Office from moving migrants into the former Wethersfield RAF base in Essex. Opening the former Scampton base in Lincolnshire, which is due to hold 2,000 migrants, has been delayed until October because of a failure to conduct essential surveys on 14 of the site’s buildings.

That’s before we come to the protracted saga of the Rwanda plan. It’s now been well over a year since the first flight was stopped on the runway by a last-minute European Court of Human Rights ruling. In July of this year, the Supreme Court ruled that the plan was unlawful. Even if the Government’s appeal against that decision is successful, the first flights look unlikely to take off before January of next year.

In the meantime, reports this week suggest ministers are looking at sending asylum seekers to Ascension Island, a British-controlled territory in the southern Atlantic – though it’s unclear whether this is a serious proposal or a piece of media kite-flying. Either way, Sunak’s claim that migrants will not be able to stay ‘no matter how hard you try’ looks rather hollow when the Government doesn’t yet have anywhere to send them. By the same token, trying to draw dividing lines with Labour invites the obvious rejoinder that it’s the Tories who have been in charge since 2010, so the problems with asylum system are on them. 

That’s not to say that no progress has been made – small boat crossings were down 10% in the first half of 2023 compared to the first half of 2022. An agreement with the Albanian government also appears to have borne fruit, with far fewer people trying to make their way from the Balkan country to the UK. 

But I doubt that will be nearly enough to assuage the concerns many voters have over both the scale of new arrivals and the eye-watering cost of housing them. Answering those concerns means a combination of dealing with the people smugglers at source, moving migrants out of hotels and into dedicated facilities, and getting a deportation scheme up and running.

Whether Sunak and his colleagues can deal with that enormous task, while also battling inflation, NHS waiting lists and the rest in time for a general election next year, is a different question altogether.

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Chloe Dobbs is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.