A boat with refugees. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
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Why does the UK now oppose funding search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean?

Political expediency trumps the needs of the most desperate.

How do you solve a problem like desperate foreigners risking their lives to get to the UK? The government has a new answer. 

Britain will not support search and rescue operations to prevent refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. “We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean,” the Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay has explained, asserting that search and rescue operations acted as “an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths”. The implication, therefore, is that the policy is a humane one, designed to save lives.

It is easy to take a different view. Those who flee from Libya or Syria do so in desperation. The existing rescue operations hardly make crossing the Mediterranean as a refugee risk-free. Over 3,000 people have died attempting to reach Europe from the Mediterranean so far this year. The idea that they will cease now that the quality of the search and rescue operation has deteriorated even further is extraordinary.

The UK has long maintained a certain sense of moral superiority in its attitude to welcoming immigrants and refugees. When the Australian government released its notorious posters two weeks ago – ‘NO WAY: You will not make Australia home’, accompanied by the image of a boat being tossed in a threatening sea – many said that it could not happen here.

That claim just became a lot harder to make. In the quest to clamp down on immigration, of any sort, the UK government has put thousands of desperate refugees at risk. One of David Cameron’s most notable achievements has been the development of the What Works Network, with its emphasis on evidence in policy-making. Yet there seems no indication whatsoever that evidence that reducing search and rescue operations will save lives, as Lady Anelay suggested.

The conclusion is inescapable. The UK government is acting brazenly out of a need to be seen to be doing something – anything, really – about immigration. Political expediency trumps the needs of some of the most distressed people in the world.

They are not the only losers. Acts like these, together with the ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’ vans last year, create the image of the UK as distrustful and even resentful of foreigners, which has already manifested itself in the steep drop in foreign students studying in the UK. If talented foreign people see a country that seems suspicious of them, they will be less likely to work in the UK or do business with it, with negative economic consequences for everyone in the UK.

The government’s stance on search and rescue operations not only fails on a humanitarian case, but also on the most hardheaded business one too.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.