Where is Boris’ Policy guru?

by Lee Rotherham

The Thatcher Revolution did not emerge from jottings hastily scribbled on a post-it note. It was the consequence of considerable strategic thinking, in large part arising from the remarkable insight of John Hoskyns. He applied his business acumen from the early computer industry to generate a flow diagram of why the economy was broken and resisted repair. This revealed how approaching problems in isolation had merely stirred the curd elsewhere, and demonstrated the need for a brave and comprehensive solution.

We need new Hoskyns characters today, tackling today’s complex problems too often broached piecemeal, when not simply thrown to the back of the policy cupboard as ‘too difficult’.

We need a Hoskyns on NHS reform, fixing its IT babel, mastering supply issues without bringing in the army, linking in social care providers to unblock beds, tackling problem abusers, and yes, privatising parts of the fifth largest employer in the world.  

We need a Hoskyns working on civil service reform, punishing failure, boosting innovation, and rewarding free thinking. (If Dominic Cummings had been properly Dominic Cummings about this, he would have just focused on just gripping this keystone issue and leaving a tangible legacy.)

We need a Hoskyns working on Defence procurement, a system run on amateurism, focused on deceiving the Treasury rather than negotiating with suppliers, generating mangled contracts producing less kit than the estimates said were needed (if working), and then forcing budget cuts in core manpower.

And we need a Hoskyns working on immigration. At least commentators here now appreciate there are ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. But there is still immense dishonesty and disingenuity in play.

I say dishonesty, because the judicial system is broken and too many are afraid to admit the implication. There’s a simple reason why: human rights law has clogged the system, and genuine change needs repealing the Human Rights Act 1998.

HRA ‘98 was introduced by Tony Blair on the back of the UK very publicly losing unpopular high-profile cases in Strasbourg’s human rights courts. New Labour’s solution was typically disingenuous: hide the end loss by forcing UK judges to themselves pre-empt their own decisions being overturned later. Like a bad plumber, this masked the source of the problem, but did not fix it.

By the same token, merely now repealing the ‘98 Act will merely unmask the core problem once more. The very terms of our association with the legal institutions arising from the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights needs to change. There are three options. The first is simply to selectively ignore rulings, which would mean accepting a perpetual rolling diet of hostile publicity whenever British judges and Strasbourg judges interpret ‘human rights’ differently. Russia and Turkey are quite happy to follow this approach on far more fundamental issues, but it’s stylistically anathema to current Whitehall psychology.

The second would be to seek to negotiate an amendment to the Convention, a diplomatic challenge at the best of times. The third option is to withdraw from the Convention and rejoin it with a new protocol, one referencing the primacy of a new Common-Law-friendly UK Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. It would follow the Convention’s original principles, as interpreted by UK judges and clarified by British lawmakers, rather than just accepting how any politically-correct activist might in the future want to reinterpret it.

None of these options though will be particularly popular in risk-averse Whitehall, or by a legal fraternity hooked on the postmodern human rights Kool Aid. The current set up is too convenient for liberal legalistas, changing our laws by the back door without ever having to convince a hostile public to vote for anything. There will also be the FCDO fear (more credible, but only to a point) that any action may encourage authoritarian regimes to also pull out of the Convention, risking genuine human rights impact.

Frankly though this should be a spur to the liberal-left to get their act together and propose their own ECHR reform. But it won’t. So, the problem will need to be tackled by the Conservative Government head on, repealing HRA ‘98 and sticking to their guns despite the uproar. As a major bonus, in the process it will unfreeze a range of other Strasbourg-sourced blockages across other areas as well, from gender politics or business regulations to policing, criminal justice or health and safety. For some insight, this paper still provides a useful starting point.

But I also mentioned disingenuity on the migration issue. The liberal left is selective here. Its advocates declare that seeking asylum is legal, which it is, but without ever mentioning the 1971 Immigration Act by which unsanctioned entry is a crime. Its advocates focus on successful appeals, while glossing over the numbers initially denied asylum status when assessed, or the number of cases even then turned down on appeal. They talk in a vocabulary of asylum seeking, while avoiding the controversy of asylum shopping. There is a massive set of issues around the very definition of what makes a genuine asylum seeker that is, in the characteristic methodology of the Left, attacked simply for being raised.

Therefore the recent appearance on BBC Breakfast by Kevin Saunders, former Chief Immigration Officer for UK Border Force in Calais, deserves quoting. Saunders, who spent 16 years in the field, observed;

“Most of the people I dealt with were not asylum seekers, they were economic migrants. And I do think it is a little bit disingenuous of some of the people who’ve never met a migrant in their life to say they’re all asylum seekers. They’re not all asylum seekers. A lot of them are just plain economic migrants.” He added, “The draw to the UK is phenomenal, because basically everything is free, and that’s the attraction, that’s why they want to come. They’re going to get housing, education, money, everything. That’s why they want to come.”

Of course, some in Calais are asylum seekers, by any fair definition of the term. But we do no favours to them, and especially to others who do not bribe their way across the continent, by rewarding economic migrants instead. We similarly do those arriving no favours by generating a complex appeals system, hampered by Strasbourg case law, that stalls claimants in the UK for years, encourages gaming of the system, and tolerates advocates who coach deceit.

Most worrying of all, there is the myopia of tolerating a system failure that seriously undermines the public’s level of trust, and risks society’s acceptance of those fleeing genuine persecution. That’s especially true given recent commitments to provide a potential place of refuge to the people of Hong Kong.

The UK is a tolerant country. Those seeking political asylum deserve our support, both here and particularly closer to their home to which one day we hope they might be free to happily return. Those claiming asylum deserve to be treated with basic respect while their cases are assessed.

But there has to be a functioning flip side. Those whose claims fail need swift deportation, with no right of entry again. Claimants need to be incentivised to cooperate over supplying intelligence on trafficking. Claimants need to be processed not in the UK, but in a third country. Illicit entry by boat, or asylum shopping via a safe country, should count against an application, and not generate an advantage over someone who has properly followed the rules. And the new policy should be made widely known as a deterrent. The way to stop people drowning at sea is to end the incentive to attempt the crossing, not to encourage more people to try it.

The decisions that need to be taken are many and complex, extending well beyond those listed above. The answer has to be holistic, and as ranging as John Hoskyns would have recognised. Lying at the core of that convoluted circuit diagram though sits the repeal of HRA98, and the gumption to tackle the elasticated Strasbourg human rights system head on.

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