Alok Sharma, the government minister and President of the upcoming COP26 climate change conference, has travelled to 30 countries in the past 7 months. Six of those countries were “red list” countries. And he didn’t have to isolate when he came back.
Did he travel to all those countries? Yes, he did – despite the fact that most foreign travel was banned during this period; despite the fact that “the aviation industry produced 915m tonnes of CO2 in 2019, equivalent to 2% of all human-made CO2 emissions”; and despite the fact that the alternative to travel of virtual meetings and conferences is now common practice everywhere; and despite the fact that he’s President of COP26 and last month said that “we all need to play our part” in taking measures to stop the climate crisis, and encouraged small changes which could make a difference.
So they could, Alok, so they could.
Was he exempt from the requirement to isolate? Is that really true? Yes, it is.
The government’s official Guidance to Crown servants (and that includes Alok) sounds OK to start with:
You need to quarantine in a government approved hotel if you have been in a country on the travel ban red list in the 10 days before you arrive in the UK …
There’s no way out of that, then, is there? Yes, there is. The Guidance goes on to say that if “a relevant department of the UK government has certified that you are not required to do so” then you are not required to do so. This is because you are
a Crown servant or government contractor travelling to the UK for essential government work or returning from such work outside the UK, or
returning from conducting essential state business outside of the UK, or
returning to the UK where this is necessary to facilitate the functioning of a diplomatic mission or consular post of Her Majesty or of a military/other official posting on behalf of Her Majesty.
And they will certify you simply by sending you a letter. Still, Alok might get caught under the next rule:
Even if you do not need to quarantine in a managed quarantine hotel you may still be required to quarantine in the place where you are staying.
You do not need to quarantine in the place where you are staying if a relevant department of the UK government has certified to that end that you are:
a Crown servant or government contractor travelling to the UK for essential government work, or
returning from conducting essential state business outside of the UK, or
returning to the UK where this is necessary to facilitate the functioning of a diplomatic mission or consular post of Her Majesty or of a military/other official posting on behalf of Her Majesty.
Whew! Lucky escape, Alok.
Still, like everybody else, he will still have to be tested for the virus when he gets back to the UK, won’t he? After all:
You are expected to complete tests on day 2 and day 8 where reasonably practicable [after your return] …
you will not need to complete the mandatory testing requirements if a relevant department of the UK government has certified that you are:
a Crown servant or government contractor travelling to the UK for essential government work, or
returning from conducting essential state business outside of the UK
and you do not need to quarantine in a managed quarantine hotel or the place where you are staying as a result.
That must be a relief.
Finally, what about the rules on “covid testing before entering England”? Well, Alok would need to be specifically certified to escape this, but that wouldn’t be a problem. He would just need another letter:
The relevant department of the UK government will issue you with a letter certifying that you fall within one of the categories above and that you are not required to comply with the requirement.
So that’s all done and dusted, then. No quarantine, no testing, go where you like, as often as you like, no problem. Still, our hero did wear a mask on his journeyings apparently, so that’s something.
It was just a mask though. To hide the fact that there’s one law for us, and a whole raft of exemptions for them.
Well, there’s a turn-up for the books. According to this story (below), Sir Robert Owen will brook no delay: he wants an inquiry now. Sir Robert is, of course, right — but he’s retired and who’s going to take notice of a retired judge? Not Johnson for sure. Neither will he listen to
the Royal College of Nursing, Bob Kerslake, the former head of the civil service under David Cameron, Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, and Ed Davey, the leader of the Liberal Democrats.
It’s good of Sir Robert to suggest a “duty of candour”, to be put in a charter and applied to all inquiries. But what good would that do? Most of us might assume that a duty of candour is a given — otherwise what’s the use of a sodding inquiry in the first place? And what difference would it make if it was written down? If they want to be candour-free, they will be candour-free:
Lord Justice Cholmondeley-Grimwood: I must remind all parties to this inquiry of their duty of candour throughout these proceedings.
Counsel for the government: My Lord, my clients assure me that they have been working incredibly hard to ensure that candour is at the very heart of their approach.
This perfect example of a lack of candour will continue “throughout these proceedings”, as his Lordship might put it.
Public inquiry into Covid must begin now, says senior judge
Home Secretary Priti Patel has announced an overhaul of the UK asylum system, which she says is “broken”. She says that when she’s finished her review the system will be “faster and fairer”. She is not the first Secretary of State to announce such a reform of the system and not the first to use that kind of language. In 1999, Labour’s Jack Straw announced that after his review the system would be “fairer, faster, firmer”. Before him, Social Security Secretary Peter Lilley told the Tory Party Conference in 1995:
“Genuine political refugees are few. The trouble is our system almost invites people to claim asylum to gain British benefits. That can‘t be right – and I‘m going to stop it. Britain should be a safe haven, not a soft touch.”
In 2006, Labour Home Secretary John Reid described the immigration system as “unfit for purpose”, “dysfunctional” and probably needing “wholesale transformation”. Now, after more than a decade of Tory government, Patel is at it again. And as she does it, we will see that she shares the hostility to asylum seekers shown by Lilley, which he in turn shared with Tory Home secretary Michael Howard, who declared in 1995 that the UK
“is seen as a very attractive destination because of the ease with which people can get access to jobs and to benefits. And while, for instance, the number of asylum seekers for the rest of Europe are falling the number in this country are increasing [and] only a tiny proportion of them are genuine refugees.”
To cite her predecessors is to suggest that her proposals are not particularly new. Yet their post-Brexit context has given them extra traction. The referendum campaigns to leave the EU (both the official campaign, Vote Leave, and the unofficial campaign, Leave.EU) argued their case on the basis of democracy. Boris Johnson claimed that the EU had become “ever more centralizing, interfering and anti-democratic … The independence of this country is being seriously compromised. It is this fundamental democratic problem – this erosion of democracy – that brings me into this fight.” Thus we would be able to “take back control” of several aspects of our affairs, e.g. our laws, our justice system, our waters – but notably our borders. Both campaigns wanted to control migrants from the EU, but Leave.EU in particular (which was fronted by UKIP’s Nigel Farage) quickly extended this demand to all immigration, and Leave.EU’s “Breaking Point” poster, which depicted refugees from the Middle East in a vast queue at Europe’s borders, made the point with the slogan displayed on the poster: “We must break free of the EU and take back control”. Migrants were depicted (wherever they came from) as an economic threat to the working class and a security threat (through terrorism) to the country as a whole. Perhaps not surprisingly, in the four weeks following the referendum result, there were 6,000 racist hate crimes recorded by the police. And in cases of verbal abuse there was evidence of how Brexit was thought by some to mean getting rid of all immigrants:
“A Sikh radiographer recounted how a patient asked, “Shouldn’t you be on a plane back to Pakistan? We voted you out.” In 51 per cent of the incidents, perpetrators referred specifically to the referendum in their abuse, with the most commonly involved phrases including ‘Go home’ (74 stories), ‘Leave’ (80 stories), ‘Fuck off’ (45 stories). These were followed up by statements such as ‘We voted you out’, ‘We’re out of the EU now, we can get rid of your lot’, ‘When are you going home?’ ‘Shouldn’t you be packing your bags?’ And then, in August 2016, six teenage boys were arrested in Harlow, Essex, for a brutal street attack on an Eastern European migrant after he was heard speaking Polish in the street. The man subsequently died. What is striking about this wave of racist violence was the way its perpetrators made little attempt to distinguish between black and brown citizens and white European migrants – in their eyes, they were all outsiders.”
Back in Westminster, once the government of Boris Johnson had “got Brexit done”, it began to focus on “taking back control of our borders”.
How did you get here?
One of Patel’s key proposals is that people seeking protection as refugees will have their claims assessed based on how they arrived in the UK. According to the Home Office, the question of whether asylum seekers enter the UK via another safe country such as France will, “for the first time”, “have an impact” on how their claims are dealt with. However, such a measure could find itself in breach of the Refugee Convention signed by the UK. According to the Convention, an asylum claim should be assessed on the basis that the asylum seeker is someone who,
“owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”
There’s nothing there about how you arrive or the route you take. You just need to have been persecuted or be living in fear of persecution. On the face of it, Patel’s proposal looks like a breach of the Refugee Convention. But then it always did. For this is not “the first time” that such a regulation has been applied.
Dublin Convention 1990
The Dublin Convention specified that an asylum application must be made in the first EU country of arrival. If you applied in the UK, for example, but you had passed through France, your asylum claim could be refused or you could be sent back to France to be dealt with. It was no defence to explain that you were in the hands of a courier and had no control over your destination; that you had friends or relatives in the UK but did not know anybody in France; that you had some knowledge of English but not of French. Further, under the Dublin Convention, if your application was refused in one EU country it would automatically be refused in all others. This, however, goes against the usual interpretation of the Refugee Convention, i.e. that it requires every signatory state to consider all applications for asylum made on its territory.
But this is all in the past for the UK: now we’ve left the EU, we can no longer use the Dublin Convention to get rid of unwanted asylum seekers. Hence the new proposal, and Patel claims the UK is negotiating new arrangements to overcome this inconvenience. But no agreement has so far been reached. In any case, Patel’s new proposal, like the Dublin Convention rules themselves, sits awkwardly with the Refugee Convention’s Article 1.2, quoted above, and also seems questionable on other legal grounds. The Convention, in Article 31.1, prescribes limits on what governments can do:
“The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.”
According to the BBC’s Home and Legal correspondent Dominic Casciani, “Official sources say Ms Patel’s restrictions would be legally possible because asylum seekers are not allowed to go ‘shopping’ for the best destination.” We will come to shopping expeditions later, but Article 31.1 does seem to provide a basis for a legal challenge.
In spite of this, Patel defends her proposal with the language of law and order, of “illegal” and “legal” travel. The Home Office says that “asylum seekers fleeing persecution or violence and coming to the UK via the ‘legal resettlement’ route from countries such as Syria and Iran would straightaway get permission to remain in the UK indefinitely.” Apart from this limited group, everyone else is apparently “illegal”. But most asylum seekers are not handpicked by the UK government; they flee from many different countries, for many different and complex reasons, sometimes planning their flight, sometimes on the spur of the moment. They may or may not have passports, they may have obtained false passports. They may use ordinary means of transport or they may, in desperation, seek the help of people smugglers. In the case of the smugglers, Patel rightly regards them as illegal, but she then extends that illegality to the asylum seekers they exploit: under the new plans, anyone who pays criminal gangs to bring them to the UK would “only ever receive temporary permission to remain and would be regularly assessed for removal from the UK.” This unjust punishment of the victims of illegal traffickers, however, might be a breach of Article 31.2 of the Refugee Convention:
“The Contracting States shall not apply to the movements of such refugees restrictions other than those which are necessary and such restrictions shall only be applied until their status in the country is regularized or they obtain admission into another country. The Contracting States shall allow such refugees a reasonable period and all the necessary facilities to obtain admission into another country.”
The idea of a “legal settlement scheme” is not new either. When such a scheme was proposed for the EU in 2001 by the UK’s Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw, it caused worries. Human Rights Watch argued that “to set quotas of refugees that European countries would accept from specific trouble spots, while insisting that the rest find protection in the region from which they come”, would “seriously compromise the security of refugees”, many of whom “are simply not able to find safety in neighbouring countries in their region of origin”. Such a scheme would exclude people who fled when they had to, often precipitately, most without choice, and many without knowledge of their destination. And so it has proved.
Choice bugs Ms Patel. Having defined “illegality” and “legality” to suit herself, she declares:
“If you illegally enter the UK via a safe country in which you could have claimed asylum, you are not seeking refuge from imminent peril, as is the intended purpose of the asylum system, but are picking the UK as a preferred destination over others.”
As we saw earlier, there are several reasons why a refugee might want to go to a particular country. They may have relatives or friends only in that country; they may have knowledge of its language but not the language of another country (English rather than French, for example, or the other way round); some will have heard much about countries that are democratic countries and may want one of them to be their destination for that reason. A young Kurd celebrating the Kurdish new year in north London told me, “I come here because England democracy country.” All these are valid reasons to try to reach a particular country, and should not be ridiculed as “asylum shopping”. But asylum seekers who are smuggled often don’t know their destination, and simply go where the lorry or the boat is taking them. They should not be stigmatised as criminals.
Agenda of Disbelief
The assumption, without evidence and before any questions have been asked, that an asylum seeker is, in Patel’s words, “not seeking refuge from imminent peril” is part of what has been called an “agenda of disbelief” about refugees that has been adopted by governments for decades. It has often been included in Acts of Parliament. So the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act 2004 gave the green light for asylum caseworkers to raise what were called “credibility” issues. These included:
- failure to produce a valid passport (s. 8 (3) (a));
- production of an invalid passport as if it were valid (s. 8 (3) (b));
- destruction or disposal of a passport (s. 8 (3) (c));
- “failure … to answer a question asked by a deciding authority” (s. 8 (3) (e)), e.g. a caseworker;
- failure to claim asylum when passing through a “safe” country (s.8 (4)).
Yet raising these issues as problems of credibility might breach Article 31.1 of the Refugee Convention. We’ve discussed the “failure” to claim asylum in a safe country. Patel’s proposals imply that caseworkers will continue to raise the other “credibility” issues despite their questionable legality under the Refugee Convention. We will look at the “failure” to produce a valid passport” together with the “destruction or disposal of a passport”.
The offence of entering the UK without a passport was introduced by the 2004 Act, after a period of hostile talk from the government about asylum seekers, led by Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett, and taken up by the tabloid press. One of the most common – and true – explanations for the absence of a passport is that the agent who supplied it demanded the passport back before the end of the journey, typically in the case of a regular flight, before landing. Traffickers take back the passports to avoid detection of their routes and methods. Blunkett claimed that this explanation was not true. Asylum seekers “destroy” their passports, he declared, because “traffickers tell them it’s their best chance of staying in the UK – by making fraudulent claims and making it difficult to remove them if their claims fail.” In line with this philosophy, section 2 laid down that asylum seekers who arrive without passports must “prove that they have a reasonable excuse” for not having one (s. 2 (4) (c)) and section 8 specifically requires the caseworker to raise it as a credibility issue. However, obeying the agent‘s instructions is not counted as a “reasonable excuse” for destroying the passport unless you can show that “in the circumstances of the case it is unreasonable to expect non-compliance with the instructions or advice” (s. 2 (7) (b)). The official Home Office guidance (the Asylum Policy Instructions (API)) on credibility stipulates that this “excuse” will be counted as reasonable only in “exceptional situations”, such as in the case of “unaccompanied minors, the very elderly or … people with mental disabilities”, or if “a document was destroyed or disposed of as a direct result of force, threats or intimidation, e.g. where an individual was forced at knife-point to give a document to someone else.”  When doing my PhD research on the treatment of asylum seekers, I never met anyone who offered such an extreme explanation: everyone I talked to who travelled with a false passport on a regular flight in the company of their agent felt obliged to give them up when the agent demanded it. One came with his family from Eritrea. His wife told her caseworker: “The passport I had was Sudanese but the agent took it away.” The agent of another took her passport before the plane landed and then he disappeared. Yet another’s agent took her passport during the flight, disembarked when the plane landed at Rome and left her to travel on to Heathrow alone. There is, in fact, no need for “knife-point” threats: asylum seekers hand their passports back because, dependent as they are on their agents, they feel they have no choice but to obey.
Temptation to abuse
The pressure on caseworkers to raise these questions may lead to misrepresentation (deliberate or accidental) or to abuse. This happened in Ervin’s case. His application for asylum was refused and his caseworker set out his reasons in the refusal letter:
“In your statement you claim that you travelled to Turkey then to the United Kingdom concealed in the back of a lorry. You would therefore have travelled through a number of European countries which are signatories to the 1951 United Nations Convention, and are therefore safe countries that are obliged to consider any asylum applications made upon their territory. There is no reason to believe that these countries would not fulfil their [Convention] obligations … The fact that you failed to claim asylum [in one of these countries] therefore further reduces your credibility.”
Unfortunately, the “fact” on which this conclusion is based is no fact at all. Ervin and his wife did not “travel to Turkey then to the United Kingdom concealed in the back of a lorry”. They arrived by plane. In his witness statement (read by the caseworker), Ervin said:
“We entered the plane with passports provided by the agent. The passports were taken away from us by the agent’s representative at the Transit Hall of Stansted Airport, in the United Kingdom.”
The caseworker knew that Ervin had arrived by plane, not only from his witness statement and the record of his screening interview but also from his main asylum interview conducted by the caseworker himself. At best the caseworker’s accusation arose from a careless disregard for the details of Ervin’s account. At worst, it derived from an eagerness to push “credibility” issues as hard as possible under pressure from his managers and his legal obligation under the 2004 Act to raise them. Nevertheless, in this case the caseworker seemed intent on fitting up Ervin for refusal. A major part of Ervin’s claim for asylum was based on his experience of detention and torture in Iran. His caseworker relentlessly set about demolishing that claim:
“You say that whilst in detention, you were beaten, kicked, and “a crazy person” burnt you with a cigarette. It is unclear whether the crazy person was a member of the security forces, or another detainee.”
It is perfectly clear in Ervin’s account that the “crazy person” was a member of the security forces. Ervin is telling a story of abuse by the authorities in the detention centre. It is clear that when he claimed that he had been “beaten up, kicked” and that “my face was swollen, with blood pouring out of my nose” he was accusing the staff at the centre. When he claimed that he heard “the cry of others who were being tortured in other rooms” and that he “could hear the cry and begging of other prisoners” he meant they were being tortured by the guards. When he said, “At the end a crazy person came and put his cigarette out on my hand” the culprit was clearly a guard, not “another detainee”.
Secondly, the caseworker writes:
“When I asked you how often you were beaten (Q36) [Question 36], initially you were unable to say, then you responded “4-5 hours”, during which you sustained a bloody nose, and eye.”
The impression given is of a man who was uncertain of the story he wanted to tell, finally inventing an implausible four- to five-hour beating, from which he emerged with no more than “a bloody nose, and eye”. However, virtually none of the interviewer’s account is true. Ervin was perfectly able to answer Question 36, and he did so immediately and appropriately – but it was not the question the caseworker claimed it to be:
“Q36: Could you tell me how you were beaten?
A: Some of them punched me and some kicked me. My nose was bleeding and my eye. At the end a crazy person came and put his cigarette out on my hand …”
Ervin then replied immediately to Question 37, which did ask how often he had been beaten. However, he did not claim to have been beaten for four or five hours but to have been beaten four or five times:
“Q37: Could you tell me how often you were beaten?
A: I did not know from the day to the night. I would say about four or five times but I don‘t know if it was day or night.”
This can be read as a misrepresentation of Ervin’s account of his detention or as the product of the interviewer’s poor memory and his misreading of the interview record. But Ervin’s claim to have been tortured was an important part of his claim for asylum and should have been considered carefully, at length and in detail. Instead, his experience was discounted in a mish-mash of inaccuracies and unsustainable accusations.
The pressure to make a credibility issue stick was also seen in Daryan’s case. He fled from Iraq when Saddam was persecuting the Kurds. During the asylum process he got some dates confused. His caseworker jumped at the opportunity and used this as a reason for refusing his asylum claim:
“You claimed [in your written witness statement] you were arrested on 20 May 1995 … At interview, when you were asked the date you were arrested you stated you were arrested on 20 November 1995, you then corrected this and claimed you were arrested on 20 May 1995 and allege you were released on 10 November 1995. When asked what happened on 20 November 1995, you said you made a mistake, you stated it was the date your brother was killed, but not the year.”
There was nothing to cause suspicion here – Daryan made a mistake about dates, then immediately corrected himself. During his interview with me, he explained:
“I had said the wrong date: “What date your brother die?” Yeah? Because … I been shot with my brother. After three days my brother die in hospital. They ask me “Which day you and your brother been shoot?” And “Which day your brother die?” And “Which day you run?” “Which day you leave your country.” Is too many days, and I don’t remember after four years all these dates.”
These examples show that the UK asylum system, as it has existed over several decades, lends itself to abuse – not by asylum seekers but by Home Secretaries and their officials determined to wrongfoot and criminalise them. Under the new proposals, powered by Brexit, this will only get worse.
Supporting the vulnerable
Setting out the plans to MPs, Patel said the government would introduce a “faster and fairer” system that would “better support the most vulnerable”. This false claim is nothing new. Back in 2001, Jack Straw expressed similar goodwill towards refugees. His aim was to “make it easier for genuine refugees to access the protection regimes of Europe and other Western States, for example by making their journeys less hazardous.” According to Straw’s plan, an agreed number of refugees – and possibly others in need of protection – would be identified in their own regions and brought to the EU for resettlement. It would mean funding UN refugee camps in regions of origin and giving priority to protection in those regions. The result, in the UK, was the Gateway programme. But Straw, like Patel today, only counted the refugees in the camps as “genuine”, and perhaps only some of them. Under the programme, only 1% of the refugee population in the refugee camps concerned were selected. In March/April 2004, 69 people were resettled in Sheffield; in November, 81 people went to Bolton; in 2005, 51 refugees were sent to Sheffield, 84 to Bury and Bolton combined and 115 to Hull and Rochdale. The numbers were low, as Human Rights Watch had feared. The vast majority of refugees, both in the refugee camps and beyond, were unable to access the protection they needed. Similarly, Patel’s tight distinction between “illegal” and “legal” asylum seekers will have the same effect. The handpicked refugees in the “legal resettlement” category will get protection – but inevitably (and by deliberate design) the numbers will be small. Everyone else will be rejected, and Patel uses the same hostile language Straw used. She said the asylum system is clogged up with bogus claims and legal wrangles. In 1997, Straw announced that his aim was to ensure that “there will be less of an incentive for the bogus people to come here.”
Bogus people? There’s a thought.
 Fairer, Faster and Firmer – a Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum (1999), IND, London.
 Cited, Mouncer, Bob (2009), Dealt with on their Merits: the treatment of asylum seekers in the UK and France, PhD dissertation, University of Hull, pp. 96-97: https://hydra.hull.ac.uk/resources/hull:2678
 BBC News, “Immigration system unfit – Reid”: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/5007148.stm”, 23 May 2006.
 Cited, Mouncer, Bob (2009), Dealt with on their Merits: the treatment of asylum seekers in the UK and France, PhD dissertation, University of Hull, p. 96: https://hydra.hull.ac.uk/resources/hull:2678
 Cited, Virdee, S. & McGeever, B., “Racism, Crisis, Brexit”, in Ethnic and Racial Studies, August 2017, Routledge, London, p. 3.
 Ibid., p. 5.
 Ibid., p. 7.
Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 1.2.
 Ensor, J. (2006), “Credibility under the 2004 Immigration Act” in Headleins, Issue 5 (Nov./Dec. 2006), Electronic Immigration Network.
 Webber, F. (2003), “New Deterrent Measures for Asylum Seekers Condemned”, Independent Race and Refugee News Network, Institute of Race Relations, London, October 2003.
 API – Credibility (2006), Assessing Credibility in Asylum and Human Rights Claims, BIA, Home Office, London.
 Names in this section are not the real names of the people described. Quotations are from official records of witness statements and Home Office caseworker interviews and refusal letters, as well as asylum-seeker interviews conducted by me.
 Ibid., p. 280.
“Well,” I said in surprise this morning when I read this story (see link below). “Good for Caroline Noakes!” I said. She is right to say that Home Office policy is intended to provide asylum seekers with accommodation that makes the country appear “as difficult and inhospitable as possible”. She is right to say the Home Office should provide better accommodation instead of what its victims tell us they are experiencing: “cold and filthy conditions”, with uneatable food and no drinking water, conditions which, they add, give them flashbacks of the cruel treatment and torture many of them fled from in their home countries. So of course she’s right: credit where credit is due.
But it’s surprising nevertheless. Noakes was immigration minister in Theresa May’s government. During that time, the Home Office cancelled my friend Zana’s UK passport with no justification at all – and did the same to several thousand other British citizens of Kurdish-Iraqi origin. Noakes didn’t lift a finger to help. Zana never got his passport back. Nor, as far as I know, did any of the others.
It’s also a bit hard to take this complaint from her:
“I don’t think the Home Office is listening to me. I think they have become very blinkered.”
She herself became notorious for adopting her own version of just such a “blinkered” approach when she was the minister: asylum seekers, trying to find out what their status was and not getting any replies at all to their emails and letters, desperately tried to contact her on her Twitter account. What did she do? She blocked them. Out of sight, out of mind I suppose.
Still, as my title suggests, “There is joy in Heaven over one sinner that repents” (Luke’s Gospel, 15:7). And Noakes is not alone. Several Tory MPs have joined her. Perhaps for mixed reasons. They mostly represent constituencies with barracks, or old barracks, within their borders. Many of their constituents may be reacting according to old fears and prejudices. In the past, these buildings were, for some of them, a source of pride – after all, they housed Britain’s finest who were armed to the teeth with weapons to kill Britain’s enemies. Now they are being used to house asylum seekers who, they may think, probably shouldn’t be here at all but, since they are, should be grateful for any accommodation they can get. Instead, they protest outside about their poor conditions and wander round the village looking hungry and distraught. The government seems to be in line with this: The Independent on Saturday quoted a government equality impact assessment as saying: “Any provision of support over and beyond what is necessary to enable the individuals to meet their housing and subsistence needs [they have, of course, provided less than is necessary] could undermine public confidence in the asylum system …” Many constituents, however, will simply be worried that we are treating people in this way at all and some will remember how British troops helped to dismantle the Nazi concentration camps after the Second World War and wonder why we seem to be building … No, it’s not the same thing, but it’s an unnerving association.
Is Noakes a repentant sinner? Who can tell? I doubt it. The twists and turns of Tory politicians are often indecipherable by outsiders until well after they’ve happened. What we might hope for, or even demand, is that the Labour Party will campaign vociferously for an immediate end to the barracks accommodation and for the humane treatment of asylum seekers. Shadow immigration minister Holly Lynch said, after an outbreak of covid-19 in one barracks, that the claim in the equality impact assessment cited above was “reprehensible” and that it was an “affront to the values of the British people” to lock people into accommodation with no way to self-isolate, and called for residents to be moved into Covid-secure housing “as a matter of urgency”. Good. That needs to be turned into a campaign on the whole question of accommodation and provision for asylum seekers, involving local Labour Party constituencies and community groups of all kinds. Decent accommodation and support and the abolition of the barracks system ought then to become a promise in the next Labour manifesto. It should then become firm policy, if Labour wins the next general election.
I’m full of impossible dreams, me!
When talking about the actions of politicians, government departments and agencies such as the police, I often emphasise the deliberate harm they do and the deliberate lies they tell. Such examples are so thick on the ground that it is easy to forget another marker of officialdom – incompetence. A recent story brought this to mind.
It turns out that more than 400,000 crime records have gone missing from the police computer. The police were in the middle of one of their weekly “weeding” sessions, during which they “expunge” data they think they won’t need any more, when – whoops! – they accidentally expunged the wrong data – essential data they would continue to need if they were to bring criminals to justice.
But there’s more: the accident doesn’t seem to have been contained at all well and The Guardian reports that high-ranking police officers are worried that “the chaos may cause them to hold data they should have legally deleted.”
Once news of this incompetent weeding got “into the public domain”, the usual efforts by the usual suspects were made to lessen its impact on public confidence. The Home Office declared it was “working with police to assess the impact of the error”. Policing minister Kit Malthouse dug deeper into his guide to Home Office jargon, telling us his department was working “very quickly” with “policing partners” to “try and recover the data and assess the full extent of the problem”. Malthouse has shown a bit of inventiveness here: the usual phrase is “working very hard”, as in “We are working very hard to reduce the backlog” of whatever the current backlog is; or “We are working very hard to improve the effectiveness of our test and trace system”. Changing it to “very quickly”, however, may have been unwise in the context of this data loss from the police computer, as it is likely to increase anxiety that yet another “accident” could take place. On “policing partners”, I haven’t come across this phrase before, but it does suggest a dance of some kind – which may not be quite the picture that officials wanted to paint.
Next up comes a statement by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC). A spokesperson said: “We are aware of an issue with the police national computer and are working closely with the government to understand the potential operational impacts” – which being interpreted means “Are we buggered for the future?”
Exactly. It seems we all are, at least potentially. It’s not only that we may not be protected from criminal activity after this “accident”. It also seems that if the police have mistaken or false information about us they can’t delete it, so we’re not safe from them either.
We might be partly reassured by what at first sight looks like a bit of straight talking from Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds:
“This is an extraordinarily serious security breach that presents huge dangers for public safety. The incompetence of this shambolic government cannot be allowed to put people at risk, let criminals go free and deny victims justice.”
Unfortunately for Nick, however, he’s a bit hamstrung by his party’s record. For example John Reid, one of Nick’s predecessors (who was actually Labour Home Secretary, not just a shadow), said in 2006 that the large chunk of the Home Office that was causing him trouble at the time – the Immigration Directorate – was “not fit for purpose”. In full:
“Our system is not fit for purpose. It is inadequate in terms of its scope, it is inadequate in terms of its information technology, leadership, management systems and processes.”
Still, that’s not Nick’s fault, is it? Sounds like it’s systemic to me. Perhaps that’s the difference between incompetence and deliberate harm: incompetence is systemic; deliberate harm is systematic. It’s to be hoped that, if Nick ever sheds his shadow and becomes Home Secretary, he will show more of the milk of human kindness than Reid ever showed. Reid’s complaint was that the department wasn’t deporting enough people and therefore couldn’t even cause deliberate harm competently. That’s what he wanted to fix. Personally, I think they’re quite efficient at causing deliberate, malicious harm. But that’s a story for another time.
Who knows? The Chief Medical Officers advised it, which Michael Gove admits. But did the government do it? It’s difficult to tell whether the wishes of the CMOs have been met (the graph in the article here says only that it means “Strictest level of social distancing measures and restrictions“, which is not terribly clear). Gove was evasive, saying that the government had “no alternative other than to take every step that we possibly could” – which might range from, well, absolutely everything to only what they fancied doing in view of their obsession with getting the economy moving (they say restrictions are bad for the economy but often fail to mention that without them the economy, and everything else, would collapse). The point of the tier system, I suppose, is to try to solve this problem by a mixture of light restrictions here and heavier ones there, moving from one to another as the rates of infection change and (as we now know) the virus mutates. But this ensures that we are always behind the virus, never in front.
There seems now to be some acknowledgement of this and it looks as if the tiers have been temporarily suspended in favour of an across-the-board lockdown, similar to the first one. That first one worked, even though it was imposed later than it should have been: infection levels fell. But it was lifted too early, and infection levels rose after we were all advised it was OK to barbecue and dance in each other’s gardens and use each other’s bathrooms.
When will this new lockdown start to be lifted? Johnson thinks mid-February, when, he says, 12.2 million of the most vulnerable people will have received their vaccinations and we will have entered “the last phase of the struggle”.
I always worry when Johnson slips into his “Winston-at-war” mode (Churchill: “This is not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning”). It’s misleading to think of the pandemic as an enemy in a war. A scientist interviewed on Channel 4 News the other day was asked by the interviewer whether the virus was “trying to beat the vaccine”. She replied that we should get away from the idea that the virus is trying to do anything: it is simply mutating, as viruses do.
Gove thinks mid-March is more likely, when the effect of the vaccine will start to be evaluated. Let’s hope one of them is right, even if it’s only by accident. Johnson isn’t always right. On Sunday he said there was “no doubt in my mind” that the schools were safe. Today they’re shut. Still, hope springs eternal …
On 3 January 2020, Cédric Chauviat, a 42-year-old delivery man on a bike, was stopped by the police in Paris (they said he was talking on his mobile phone). At the end of the encounter, Cédric was dead, strangled, with serious damage to his neck. The strangling took place first while Cédric was standing up and continued while he was on the ground. According to the autopsy, he died of “asphyxiation associated with haemorrhaging of the two thyroid cartilages situated in the throat”. The police officer involved, named as Michael P., denied strangling him and claimed he had supported Cédric’s head with his arms throughout the encounter.
Strangling was, however, an official procedure. It’s aim was to “restrain an individual by reducing their capacity to breathe and their flow of blood to the brain”. In the 2008 police training manual, there are four different kinds:
- “strangulation by locking the head and the arms”
- “strangulation from behind with the lower arm”
- “strangulation by means of [the victim’s] clothing”
- “the technique of bringing [the victim] to the ground by strangulation”
No mention of the knee, you’ll notice, but the principle’s the same. The knee on the neck is an international police method of restraint – used not only in the US (as we saw in the case of George Floyd) but in the UK (it was used on a victim, in the street, in front of witnesses, soon after George Floyd’s murder).
Nevertheless, it looked for a brief moment as if the strangulation method would cease in France after Cédric’s death and the protests following George Floyd’s murder on 25 May in the US. “The method of taking someone by the throat, called strangulation”, said the French interior minister on 8 June, “will be abandoned, and will not be taught [in training courses].” But a few days later, after pressure from the French equivalent of the Police Federation, it was reinstated pending an alternative method being found. Strangulation would continue but it would be “practised in a measured way, with discernment”!
Meanwhile, inquiries have taken place, a report delivered to “the authorities” in September, but no action has been taken by the minister of the interior. At this moment, thousands of new police recruits are learning how to strangle their suspects. And there is no justice or vindication in sight for the Chouviat family.
So, for what it may be worth, I will keep the words of Cédric’s father blue-tacked to my study door in solidarity, and as a reminder that we should all, wherever we live, and perhaps especially if we think we’ve “taken back control” of our forces of law and order, follow his example. Immediately after his son’s murder he said:
“I am the father of Cédric Chouviat; they have assassinated my son. Emmanuel Macron, I will go to war against you, against your state.”
« Je suis le père de Cédric Chouviat ; on a assassine mon fils. Emmanuel Macron, je vais en guerre contre vous, contre votre état. »
Here’s a new year story from the French newspaper Libération:
“Good luck. A few minutes from the new year, a few metres from the Arc de Triomphe. A taxi waits. The driver combines a pleasant tone with sad words. ‘Customers sometimes come out of a corner,’ he says. ‘In the end, you never know. You just have to keep hoping. We always say the last journey is the best one. He agrees with that saying. He may have to wait a long time. Apart from his fellow drivers, ‘there’s only the cops and journalists.’ The man misses the tourists who normally invade the area. ‘We never see more nationalities than we do at this exact time of the year,’ he continues. Midnight strikes. No other sound, no sign of life. The driver, still good-natured, turns his car round towards home, towards the outer suburb of Bry-sur-Marne. In exchange for ‘Happy new year’ he offers ‘Good luck.’”
No customers, of course, because of covid restrictions. But as a former Parisian resident, the idea of Paris silent is sad, shocking. I’ve never waited for a late-night taxi near the Arc de Triomphe. But there was another story in the same edition of the paper about empty night buses in the Avenue Victoria, near Chatelet and the rue de Rivoli. When I lived in Paris from 1990-95, I did wait there, and there were queues for buses throughout the night and no lack of them. Before I found out about the night buses, I used to walk home to Montmartre at 3am on a Saturday or Sunday from the gay quarter, Le Marais. It took about an hour and a half: straight up the Boulevard de Sébastopol to the Gare de l’Est, then turn towards the Gare du Nord and then go towards Barbès. Some people were worried about Barbès. They said it was a dangerous area to walk through, you’d probably be robbed or worse. They said this about my bit of Montmartre too, around the Porte de Clignancourt, and for the same reason: the area boasted a large North African population. I never had a problem. The problem where I lived was the local police station, from which North Africans were often taken to hospital and at least one, to my knowledge, died. Anyway I found out about the buses and crowded on to them with everybody else. And it’s hard to envisage what it must be like now with empty buses and no queues, a deserted Avenue Victoria.
All this has reminded me of Samy. We met, during my years in Paris, in the Quetzal bar. He was a tall, good-looking man in his middle to late twenties, with a slightly worn face which somehow suggested that life so far hadn’t always been easy. He was from Réunion, off the East African coast, one of France’s overseas territories. After our first meeting, we met, unplanned, about every couple of months for about two years (for a number of different reasons we never exchanged phone numbers). Whenever we met, he came home, either on the metro or, if it was late, on that night bus. In between, we didn’t pine for each other but when we did meet up – or, rather, stumble into each other in a bar – the electricity between us switched on and it was immediately understood, without a word being said, that he would come home. We talked, drank, laughed and made love. It was uncomplicated and quite wonderful.
The first time we met, I went home with him. He lived near the Place de la Bastille, not far from the Quetzal. He explained that he worked as a security guard for a company and because he had an early shift the next day he would have to get the metro early – about 6.30. So the following morning, we slouched towards Bastille station. Line 1 at Bastille had a mural on its wall depicting episodes in French history. As we walked the length of the platform Samy pointed out scenes and characters on the wall: “Here’s Marie-Antoinette, that’s Napoleon, this is the storming of the Bastille …” Perhaps that’s why I was so taken by him: he took the trouble, at 6.30 in the morning, to give me a quick lesson in French history.
Anyway, in these dark times, and as a result of reading in a French newspaper about taxis and buses with no passengers, I suddenly thought of Samy. I hope he’s OK. I hope he’s staying safe and healthy.