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10 July 2008

A sea change on immigration?

On public service reform, the government is at last beginning to listen to front-line staff, rather

By Martin Bright

This past week, I found myself hunting people traffickers and drug smugglers with the immigration minister, Liam Byrne, off the coast of Southampton. The crew of the Vigilant, one of five “cutters” that patrol this island’s waters, put on a good show for the minister and assembled media. At one point, a five-man team of customs officers in a speedboat circled and boarded a yacht to check for traces of Class A drugs and stowaways.

I don’t know if the visit was part of a new policy to get the residual talent of the government out and about in all-action situations. All the same, it was disappointing that Byrne didn’t don a wetsuit and crash helmet to join the speedboat patrol. These days ministers have been trained not to get caught in public wearing inappropriate headgear, but surely he could have made an exception to associate himself with these black-clad crime-busters.

We had been invited to watch the Home Office’s new UK Border Agency in action. Since April this year, this new institution has been desperately trying to claw back confidence lost by its predecessor, the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND). Customs work has been transferred to it from the Treasury and visa services from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Crucially, the beefed-up agency was created as a result of consultation with staff in the various departments, something this government has been rarely prepared to do in other parts of the public sector.

Change of direction

The creation of the UK Border Agency is probably a good idea. The IND was so demoralised by a series of crises (dodgy visas from eastern Europe, David Blunkett’s lover’s nanny, foreign criminals on the loose) that it needed a change of direction. The incorporation of customs appears to be making everyone happy, not least the minister, who is delighted to hear that immigration officers have been making substantial drugs seizures and customs officers have been finding illegal immigrants. Customs enforcement officers on the Vigilant seemed genuinely pleased that their bosses were no longer obsessed with seizing contraband cigarettes to secure additional revenue for the Exchequer.

There has been growing concern that convictions of major drug criminals have dropped away since the creation of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, and the hope is that the new arrangements will allow customs to return to its normal role of tackling international drug gangs. Already, officers have begun to identify shifts in patterns of criminality, with increasing numbers of seizures taking place on boats registered to Russia and the Baltic states, rather than Britain, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, as has usually been the case.

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During our visit, Byrne told me he didn’t join the Labour Party at 15 to crack down on immigration. Yet boat patrols are the more acceptable end of the dirtiest job in government: even liberals don’t like people traffickers and drug smugglers. Labour ministers have never felt comfortable talking about immigration, but Byrne has the beginnings of a philosophy. The argument for the benefits of migration to Britain can only be made, he says, if the public is reassured about border security.

Better ideas

In the past year, there has been a subtle change of tone on immigration, with ministers beginning to argue that it can work for Britain. They believe they can now put a figure of £6bn on the value of migration to Britain – larger than agriculture and fisheries. Immigration has finally ceased to be the number-one concern of the British public, which had been the case for several years. But here, as in so much of what the government is doing, there is an almost touching gratitude for small mercies. Byrne told me net dissatisfaction with the government on immigration policy had fallen by between 12 and 14 per cent. In other words, people are still very dissatisfied with state action on the matter, but not as much as they were. Immigration is no longer the main concern, but only because they are even more worried about crime and the economy.

There is much that is repellent about immigration policy under Labour: the detention of the children of failed asylum-seekers, the scandalous return of refugees to countries such as Sudan and Zimbabwe, and the enforced destitution of refugees who have had all access to benefits removed but who have no right to work. The creation of the UK Border Agency, however, demonstrates that at least some people in government know that we need to change priorities to tackle the criminals who do real harm.

With the Prime Minister in such an appalling hole, it is easy to forget that the job of government carries on around him. Significant shifts of tone and policy have taken place across government, from Ed Balls’s ten-year Children’s Plan to Alan Johnson and Lord Darzi’s plans for the National Health Service. In each case, many of the proposed reforms have come from discussions with the same public service workers new Labour used to despise.

I asked Liam Byrne where he felt the government had gone wrong. “For too long we were delivering change by diktat from the centre. We have now realised you get much better ideas from front-line staff than from policy mandarins in Whitehall,” he said. So, the government is finally listening to the people – just as the people have stopped listening to the government.

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