The questions Theresa May still has to answer

The Home Secretary is struggling to contain the row over relaxed border controls.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, is under pressure after she admitted that she had personally authorised UK Border Agency (UKBA) staff to not carry out full passport checks on hundreds of thousands of people arriving in Britain.

In the Commons, she conceded she had decided in July to sign off a four-month pilot scheme allowing reduced passport checks for European Union passport holders, as a way of dealing with crowds and long airport queues over the summer. However, she claims that she only authorised the relaxation of rules for certain categories of passengers -- those which did not pose a credible security risks. What actually happened is that people were not checked against the warning index at Calais. She claims that UKBA officials acted without her knowledge, a leaked document suggests she gave border agency officials the discretion to relax the rules further.

This morning, many questions remain.

What about ministerial responsibility?

May is adamant that the current debacle was not her fault. Three senior officials from the UKBA -- including its chief, Brodie Clark -- were suspended last week. Several newspapers this morning have commented that there is something unedifying about ministers blaming their officials when things go wrong; when it comes down to it, a minister is responsible for creating the culture in their department.

Certainly, the heat is not off May yet. While the government talked tough on immigration ("Together we will reclaim our borders and send illegal immigrants home," said David Cameron one month ago), she authorised a relaxation of border controls, apparently without consulting the Prime Minister. An internal investigation is now under way; this will prove what she did or did not authorise.

What was the impact of spending cuts?

In a climate of reduced staff and cut budgets, it is perhaps inevitable that people will cut corners. Faced with the pressure of increased summer traffic, staff shortages, and intense over-crowding, it's perfectly possible that officials did decide to abandon the proper checks -- or that they thought this was acceptable, given the pressure they were under. Strategies for effective, efficient border controls must be found -- at present, the pull between dwindling resources and rising demand appears impossible.

Why does a culture of chaos prevail at the UKBA?

It was five years ago that John Reid (then Home Secretary) said that Britain's immigration system was "not fit for purpose". The UKBA was formed in 2008 to fix this, but it remains plagued by disaster. Last week, it was reported that the number of "lost" asylum-seekers had tripled between March and September. While stories such as this are perfect headline fodder, what is generally ignored is that this is frequently caused by a culture of denial at the Home Office. Many asylum-seekers with a valid case to remain are denied, even if they cannot be returned to their home country, and end up dropping out of the system entirely. In this case, humane treatment of those who need refuge would not be incompatible wtih limiting the number of those who settle permanently in the UK -- granting temporary status would allow the Home Office to keep track of who is here.

Clearly, the UKBA is still in chaos. May did not create it, but as Home Secretary, it is her responsibility to sort it out.

Was it worth introducing biometric passports?

One of the relaxed measures included lifting checks at busy times on biometric passport holders from outside Europe. Biometric passports were introduced five years ago in the UK, at great expense. One must question whether this was worth it, if officials essentially treat them the same as their paper predecessors. One of the relaxed measures included lifting checks at busy times on biometric passport holders from outside Europe.

High tech checks are pointless if they cannot be carried out efficiently; the cost increases pressure on staffing expenditure, while long queues into Britain are unhelpful and unpleasant for the vast majority of passengers, who are here lawfully.

What about nuance?

The reality is that an effective system can operate with varying degrees of thoroughness. It's not necessarily a disaster if every single person is not subjected to rigorous checks -- such as the low-risk passengers for whom May claims she authorised reduced checks. This is presumably why she decided to go ahead with the plan. What is an error is relaxing checks at predictable, busy times (such as the summer months), and officials failing to use methods at their disposal to identify higher-risk passengers, such as the warning index.

Labour has clearly seen an opportunity to attack May and not letting go -- once again, the debate around immigration descends to a knee-jerk reaction designed to win points with voters. What would be more productive would be an intelligent discussion about when and how it would be acceptable to relax border checks. Such a huge system can only function effectively if it operates with varying degrees of stringency. Proper risk assessments would be a good place to start.

You might want to talk tough -- but can't you tone down the anti-foreigner rhetoric?

The vast majority of people arriving in the UK are either tourists or business people, both of whom are contributing money to an economy that badly needs it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the tone of previous addresses by both May and other government ministers (including David Cameron), the Home Secretary's statement to the Commons yesterday struck an unpleasant note of suspicion of anyone who dares to come into the country. May appeared to lump together all foreigners as potential terrorists, criminals, or "economic tourists". Sadly (but again, unsurprisingly), this was unquestioned by the opposition.

 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Do you see yourself as British or English? The answer could help define modern politics

The rise of English identity has left a glaring space in politics for an English nationalist party. Who is going to fill it?

Political scientists call it the “Moreno question”. In the 1980s, the Spanish academic Luis Moreno Fernández came up with a test for identity, which was originally applied to gauge interest in Catalan independence. In its English incarnation, it asks voters to grade themselves from “I feel more British than English” to “I feel more English than British”. Unsurprisingly, Ukip does best among those who describe themselves as “English, not British”, while Labour’s vote rises the more people see themselves as British. In the biggest group – the 47 per cent who see themselves as equally English and British – the Tories lead.

The Moreno question helps us make sense of three interlinking trends in modern politics. First, the stark fact that in the 2015 election, a different party won in each nation of the United Kingdom: Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland, the Tories in England and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Second, Ukip’s lack of success north of the border: the Herald reported in July that Ukip’s only elected representative in the country, David Coburn MEP, had been forced to take on the role of treasurer at his local branch in Fife because it has so few members. Third, Labour’s declining performance in its historic northern heartlands. Many voters there want a party with a distinctively English flavour and don’t feel that Labour is it.

Devolution has had many unexpected consequences, but the rise of an English identity is one of the least explored. Because of its demographic dominance, mainstream politicians have long argued that it would be unfair to give England its own parliament. Labour is particularly resistant to the idea because it would magnify the Conservatives’ power. As it is, the principle of “English votes for English laws” will exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the grand committee-stage hearings on grammar schools, because education is a devolved matter.

However, the last general election showed that there’s a problem with English voters feeling ignored. In Worcester, the Tory MP Robin Walker told me in April 2015 that arguments about the SNP holding Labour to ransom cut through on the doorstep. “There is a real concern if [voters] are saying, ‘The proceeds of the mansion tax are all going to go on nurses in Scotland. That doesn’t help us,’” he said. Many English voters felt that the SNP would be a successful lobby group at Westminster for Scotland’s interests. Where was their equivalent?

For John Denham, the former Labour MP who now leads the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester, the same dynamic applied this summer in the EU referendum campaign. “Scotland got ‘Scotland Stronger in Europe’,” he tells me. “England had to put up with ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’. That was an elite campaign run by people who think Britain and England are the same thing.”

Once again, the Moreno question helps us understand a fundamental divide among English voters. Denham says that 80 per cent of people who defined themselves as “English only” voted Leave, while 80 per cent of those who called themselves “British only” voted Remain.

Denham thinks that this presents an enormous challenge for Labour in northern seats where Ukip is in second place, given that its intellectuals and leading politicians feel so squeamish about Englishness. “If Labour continues as a cosmopolitan, liberal party that doesn’t want anything to do with the politics of identity,” he warns, “it won’t reach those voters.”

Other politicians worry that if Labour doesn’t occupy this space, another party will. “As nationalists go, the SNP is pretty good,” a senior left-wing politician told me recently. “An English nationalist party could be something altogether more nasty.”

In this light, the election of Diane James as the leader of Ukip looks like a rare stroke of luck for Labour. She is a southerner, educated at Rochester Grammar School, and an MEP for south-east England. Although she is polished and professional – albeit prone to outbursts of admiration for Vladimir Putin – she seems unlikely to appeal on an emotional level to working-class white voters in the north, where the greatest potential for an English nationalist party lies. Thanks to Ukip’s Caligulan internal politics, the deputy leader, Paul Nuttall (from Bootle), did not stand and the charismatic Steven Woolfe (from Burnage) was excluded from the race after the party’s executive committee ruled that he had submitted his nomination papers 17 minutes after the deadline. (Another potential candidate, Suzanne Evans, was suspended by the party, and pretty much everyone else in Ukip seems to hate its only MP, Douglas Carswell.)

If not Labour, or Ukip, perhaps the Conservatives? Theresa May’s rebranding of the party, complete with articles on bringing back grammar schools in the Daily Mail, shows that she is pitching for Ukip-leaners. “In terms of language and biography, she has a better understanding of that struggling, socially conservative, English nationalist voter than Cameron did,” says Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of Revolt on the Right. He believes that any party that thinks a simple economic message can sway these voters is underestimating the “emotive” nature of identity-based politics. “It’s no use going to Sunderland and saying, ‘We’re going to nationalise the trains,’ and thinking, ‘They’ll come back to us.’”

There is another option. A new party could be born, perhaps even out of the ashes of post-referendum Ukip: Arron Banks, its mega-donor, has said that he fancies the idea. With the right leader, nationalist sentiment could spread like wildfire among the “English, not British”. And, as Nigel Farage has shown, you don’t need to get elected to Westminster to have an effect.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times