Home Office Go Home Campaign

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 19th December 2013.

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Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I am conscious that Bob Doris and Neil Findlay also lodged motions on this subject, but I congratulate Jackie Baillie not only on lodging the motion but on securing this afternoon’s debate. I also thank the Scottish Refugee Council for its comprehensive, detailed and measured briefing.

The SRC condemns the Home Office’s campaign for its

“crude approach, insensitive tone, and the real distress and trauma it caused.”

That sums it up pretty much perfectly, and it also helps to explain the response to the campaign. That response came not only from Scotland; as Jackie Baillie’s motion acknowledges, the backlash was UK-wide and, as the SRC says in its briefing, it

“triggered a storm of protest across the UK, particularly in London.”

There are many aspects of the campaign to criticise, but the sheer predictability of the fallout makes it all the more galling. It is clear that Home Office ministers demonstrably did not seek views across Government, and certainly not across the coalition. However, to compound that—in breach of the public sector equality duty—they did not even bother to seek the views of those working in the sector. It is quite clear at this stage that the reputation and work of the Home Office have been undermined and that, more worrying still, those working on its behalf, including the likes of Refugee Action, which was contracted to run the assisted voluntary return scheme, have suffered damage as well.

We should not lose sight of the fact that, as the SRC and Jackie Baillie acknowledge, there are people who do not have protection needs and should return to their country of origin. However, that is best achieved through confidential dialogue between refused asylum seekers, their advisers and Home Office staff. Wider communications can also play a useful role in that, but not when they are as hostile and generic as those that were used in the go home campaign.

The evidence shows not only that the posters, billboards and leaflets were inflammatory and offensive but that they cannot even be claimed to have been effective. Refugee Action has stated that the campaign has

“diminished levels of trust in our service” and reduced the take-up of the assisted voluntary return scheme.

Of course, the language that was used in the campaign has, understandably, attracted most of the criticism. As Jackie Baillie highlighted, the “go home” rhetoric had uncomfortable echoes of the rhetoric that has been used by fascist movements through the years, notably in the 1970s.

The campaign has also allowed conflation of the issues of asylum and immigration to take place. As Christian Allard was right to say, we need to have this debate. The issues are serious, cannot be ducked and must not be oversimplified. They require all politicians to take care in the language that we use.

Illegal immigration is a problem that must be tackled. For example, the removal of exit checks was a mistake that successive Administrations made in the 1990s, and the situation now needs to be reassessed and addressed. That will be key to restoring public confidence in this area. From rogue employers to bogus colleges, action quite rightly has been taken by the UK Government to address shortcomings, but the debate, at all times, needs to be characterised by fairness and balance.

It is worth mentioning the welcome end of child detention as part of the coalition agreement. The practice at Dungavel and elsewhere was utterly reprehensible and a scar on our conscience.

There are issues that we must continue to debate and difficult decisions that we need to take, but the serious risk arising from the go home campaign is that we make the task more difficult and in the process cause unnecessary risk and anxiety to many vulnerable people who already feel under threat and others who have made and continue to make such a significant economic, social and cultural contribution to Scotland and the UK as a whole.