Author: Tim Farron
Twenty years is a long time. Michael Owen was England’s most promising footballer. Britpop was starting to wane. Maybe you remember a fresh-faced Tony Blair, just a year into his spell at 10 Downing Street.
Or what if you had just applied for sanctuary in the UK, an asylum seeker fleeing from violence and persecution in some warzone overseas? You told the government what had happened to you and your family, asked for help, and then waited.
And waited, and waited some more.
According to recent reports, more than a dozen asylum seekers received decisions last year after delays of more than twenty years. One person had been waiting since 1992, frozen in limbo in a system which had forgotten them. The asylum process had robbed them of nearly three decades, during which they couldn’t work, earn or plan for the future, not in this country or anywhere else.
Stephen Hale, the boss of the charity Refugee Action, called the delays “utterly barbaric,” and he is right.
This is another reminder that the Home Office is broken. It is the department where Theresa May dreamed up her hostile environment policies, which have ripped communities apart, and where she tried to impose her immigration target, which has failed on its own terms and done so much damage to Britain’s economy and society along the way.
This is the department which gave us the horrors of the Windrush scandal, which wrongly deported British citizens who had patiently built their lives here, as well as – under New Labour – asylum backlogs which prolonged the misery of thousands of people.
Delays, deportations and bad decisions. The Home Office isn’t competent or decent enough to help the people who need it, and it doesn’t command public trust. This is evident every day in the way it treats seekers of sanctuary.
Enough is enough: the Liberal Democrats would overhaul the asylum system and make it work. Our new immigration policy paper shows how.
We would take asylum decisions away from the Home Office, for example, and give responsibility to a new, dedicated unit working closely with the Department for International Development. This way life and death judgments will be made with help from experts on international conflict, not at a department which treats asylum cases as a political inconvenience.
This would help improve the standard of decisions. Around 40% of all asylum refusals issued by the Home Office are overturned by appeal judges. The cost of getting it wrong so often – in time, money and suffering – is unforgivable.
We would also let seekers of sanctuary work, if their claim was delayed.
The current set-up is ludicrous. At the moment asylum seekers can apply for the right to work if their application takes more than a year, and even then only to do jobs on a highly restrictive list including ballet dancers and orchestral musicians. The reality is that people with skills and a will to contribute to society are left doing nothing.
When people come to this country seeking protection, it is important that they integrate, learn English, and get to know people. This helps them, and it helps Britain. To this end, we would allow asylum seekers to work if their claim takes more than three months to process.
And we would end the undignified way some asylum seekers are forced to live once they are here. The state of asylum housing is notoriously poor. We have all heard the reports about houses with bars over the windows and rooms infected with cockroaches.
We would apply the same standards to asylum housing as we already do to rental housing. The practice of forcing complete strangers to share bedrooms, in particular, is degrading and undignified, and we would end it.
To ensure this, the Lib Dems would re-assess every asylum housing contract. If we find that people are being robbed of their basic right to live safely and with dignity, or if we find bad value for money, we will cancel those contracts. Future contracts will be designed so that local authorities can bid to provide asylum accommodation if they wish.
We want to see a liberal, positive consensus around immigration to the UK, including in the way the country works with seekers of sanctuary. There are other proposals in our new paper which help us towards this: a continued, flexible system for resettling the most vulnerable refugees from Syria and beyond, for example, and plans to radically reduce the number of immigration detention centres. We will welcome people who need our help, and treat fairly those who don’t have the right to stay.
Asylum policy is tough to get right, but we promise to restore dignity and decency to people who ask for sanctuary in the UK. The Tories have foisted a hostile environment on the country for too long. It is time for a radical, liberal rethink.