No policy attracted greater condemnation at the Labour and Lib Dem conferences than the Home Office’s “go home” vans, so today’s ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority is likely to be studied closely in Westminster.
Most of the media is reporting that the vans, which told illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest” (a slogan that Yvette Cooper rightly warned was “reminiscent of the 1970s National Front”), have been banned by the ASA, but this seemingly favourable outcome isn’t supported by the facts.
The watchdog ruled that the line “106 arrests last week in your area” was “misleading” since the data on which it was based related to north London, rather than the areas in which the poster was displayed (Barking and Dagenham, Redbridge, Barnet, Brent, Ealing and Hounslow), but, significantly, it cleared the government of using “offensive” and “irresponsible” material that was likely to “incite or exacerbate racial hatred and tensions in multicultural communities”.
While acknowledging that the phrase “go home” was “reminiscent of slogans used in the past to attack immigrants to the UK”, the ASA said that the vans were “unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence or distress.” In addition, while “noting that many of those areas had multicultural, ethnically diverse populations”, it argued that the poster was “clearly addressed to illegal immigrants rather than to non-naturalised immigrants who were in the UK legally or to UK citizens, and it would be understood by those who saw it as communicating a message in relation to their immigration status, not their race or ethnicity.” As a result, it concluded that the vans were “unlikely to incite or exacerbate racial hatred and tensions in multicultural communities, and that it was not irresponsible and did not contain anything which was likely to condone or encourage violence or anti-social behaviour.”
So, while the ASA ended by warning that the ad “must not appear again in its current home”, this order applies only to the “106 arrests” line, not the “go home” slogan. There is nothing to prevent Home Office using the vans again and it has notably refused to rule out doing so. A spokesman said: “We are pleased the ASA has concluded that our pilot was neither offensive nor irresponsible.
“We have always been clear that this campaign was about encouraging illegal immigrants to leave the country voluntarily and was not targeted at particular racial or ethnic groups.
“In respect of the ASA’s other findings, we can confirm that the poster will not be used again in its current format.”
Provided the government corrects its misleading data (not the first time it’s been ordered to do so), it is free to use the slogan “go home” again. Last Sunday, Theresa May said that she would decide whether to use the vans again after she had seen the results of an “evaluation”. She said: “once I’ve seen the results of that evaluation, we can make a decision about the impact of those vans. I think from the public’s point of view, I think what they want to see is a government that is clearly doing everything it can to remove people from this country who have no right to be here, who are here illegally and that’s what we are doing.”
Given the political outrage the vans have caused, the government may well decide to retire them, but nothing the ASA has said today forces it to do so.