Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Tea in Westminster

Last Monday the prayer and campaign network SPEAK launched its creative petition the ‘Big Dress’. For four years SPEAK have been collected 15cm2 squares of fabric with people’s pictures, prayers and words calling for trade justice. These have been sown together to make a huge, tent like patchwork dress which was erected in Berkley Square, London. The Bishop of Barking led a fantastic, moving and visual service of repentance for the UK’s and our own individual failure to pursue justice in world trade. This was followed by a mass lobby of MPs at Westminster calling for accountability of UK based multi-national companies.

I was amazed by how easy it is to lobby your MP. We queued up for ten minutes at St.Stephen's entrance, before bypassing the streams of tourists and making our way to the central lobby. There you fill in a short green card explaining why you want to speak to your MP who is then legally obliged to speak to you if the House is in session, he or she is there and not speaking in a debate. You don’t have to make an appointment (although this helps) – you can just turn up. Although my MP wasn’t able to speak to me his researcher came down almost immediately and spoke with us and agreed that we should set up a meeting with the MP in our constituency. Others spent between five minutes and an hour with their MP, one group getting a cup of tea in the House of Lords!

So next time you’re in London pencil in a discussion with your MP on an issue of your choice over a cup of tea in the palace of Westminster!

To find out who your MP is visit

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Does Michael Howard have a point?

Last week Michael Howard decided that his party was going to “tell the truth about immigration”. He quoted the government’s community cohesion panel in his speech on asylum:
"… inward immigration does create tensions … communities will perceive that newcomers are in competition for scarce resources and public services. The pressure on resources … is often intense and local services are often insufficient to meet the needs of the existing community, let alone newcomers"

For the vast majority of people in the UK the arguments and worries about asylum and immigration have no direct bearing on their daily lives. Their concerns and fears come through media coverage and a vague feeling that Britain isn’t ‘as it should be’. For instance, there were only625 people who described themselves as from an ethnic minority in Worthing, a town of 100 000 people, in the 1990s.

In contrast, almost seventy-five percent of all asylum seekers come to London. Asylum seekers, refugees, legal and illegal immigrants tend to end up in poorer parts of London where they can get support from their communities.
These are the areas that have the highest unemployment, lowest life expectancy and where it’s virtually impossible to register with a GP. The housing situation in the London Borough of Newham is appalling. Families of five or six people living in a one bedroom flat for years are not uncommon. The standard of accommodation is low – with damp and rotting windows being the most common complaints.

Since 2001 very few asylum seekers have been housed by Councils in London. They are ‘dispersed’ to other parts of the country where there are more houses. However, when they are granted refugee status they often return to London where they can get the support and help they need from their communities. When they have been living back in London for a period of time they are then eligible for housing support from London Borough Councils. The already desperate housing situation is exacerbated by a continual rise in the population and people seeking houses. People coming into the country are therefore effectively depriving the existing community of houses.

The perception is exacerbated by the fact that all Councils divide all their housing into two lists. The first is a waiting list for long-term accommodation where you and your family, when successful, become a Council tenant, basically for life (unless you exercise the right to buy or get evicted). The second is for temporary accommodation. All Councils have a statutory duty to house people that are homeless or severely overcrowded. This has to be done immediately and so they reserve property to this end. However, because of the severe shortage temporary accommodation can become quasi-permanent. If a refugee or immigrant is eligible for help in the borough they will get offered temporary accommodation immediately of the right size for the family, like anybody else. When an overcrowded family who has been waiting for a permanent home for years (the wait for a 3 bedrooom house is about a decade) sees an immigrant family move in next door to them it looks like they have jumped the queue. Explaining that it was a different queue is unlikely to be much comfort. Reacting by labelling these people ‘racist’ without acknowledging and addressing the issues under the surface is not going to improve race relations. It’s difficult to assess exactly how much additional strain immigration (legal and illegal) and asylum put on boroughs like Newham, Haringay and Tower Hamlets, but the perception that those coming into the country put strains on housing and health services has at least some truth.

Michael Howard is also right to say that the asylum system is in chaos. It’s virtually impossible to force someone to leave the country after their asylum claim has failed. Disappearing into the cash economy is easy, especially in London. It’s virtually impossible to track down illegal immigrants in the same situation – the government has no idea how many there are. Unscrupulous private landlords will accept illegal immigrants knowing that they can charge exorbitant rents for atrocious properties, because they can’t complain. The government has no idea how many illegal immigrants there are in the country. When in the country for more than a couple of years illegal immigrants will normally try and ‘go legal’ with varying degrees of success. Periodically the government offer amnesties to failed asylum seekers (the last one was issued by David Blunkett in 2004) that have ‘disappeared’ and eventually their position is regularised.

Michael Howard is right. Illegal immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers do put extra strains on demands for housing, health and education services in parts of the UK. However, it is also true that Britain can easily afford to allow all genuine asylum seekers into the country. We should be able to welcome asylum seekers and assume their stories of rape, torture and imprisonment are true. Why do the Home Office arbitrarily decide that people can’t stay because they ‘don’t have the evidence’? Why are we talking of imposing quotas on Asylum? Why do we leave a relatively small number of poorer areas to cope whilst the media and ‘middle England’ worry aimlessly from the sidelines about the threat to ‘Britishness’ or tut tut at growing racism?

The answer is that that it’s just too complicated and uncomfortable. We need to be pouring our time, effort, political will and money into resolving the problems of housing, health, the black market in our inner city areas. We need to find ways actively breaking down barriers between different races and religions. This doesn’t mean working only for tolerance but also the much more costly works of building relationships between people in different communities, whilst recognising the diversity or those different communities. We must demand that our hotel workers and cleaners are paid a just wage whatever part of the world they are from and be prepared to accept the rising cost of our own daily lives. We need to face up to our responsibilities in the developing world – to deal with debt, unfair trade and aids, to actively encourage good governance.

Until we as a nation start tackling the issues behind immigration and asylum rather than name calling, immigration and asylum policy will always be a fudge and a bodge job. Michael Howard’s reactionary, headline grabbing ‘solutions’ wouldn’t help the situation any more than the current governments. They wouldn’t prevent illegal immigrants entering the country and they wouldn’t relieve the acute problems in the boroughs most affected. Michael Howard may have a point, but he’s still not “telling the truth about immigration”.