- Created: Wednesday, 20 May 2009 15:59
FRFI 166 April / May 2002
David Blunkett has been Home Secretary for just nine months. His predecessor, Jack Straw had succeeded in making the last Tory Home Secretary, Michael Howard, renowned for his rabid authoritarian views, look mild. Blunkett has followed in Straw’s footsteps and built on his legacy. Labour’s Home Secretaries have always stood on the front line of Labour’s determination to force through plans for ever-intensifying control and subjugation of the working class. Once again, its first targets are refugees and immigrants. NICKI JAMESON looks at some of Blunkett’s plans for the future.
Immigration – secure borders, safe haven?
The thrust of Labour’s current immigration and race relations policies is twofold: keep out all foreigners who are not economically useful; control and subjugate immigrants and descendants of immigrants who are already here.
Rather than accept that last summer’s uprisings of Asian youth in northern cities were about poverty and racism, Blunkett’s reaction has been to blame ‘lack of integration’. Consequently, the proposals in the recently published White Paper, Secure borders, Safe haven: Integration with diversity in modern Britain, include a ‘Citizenship Pledge’ which ‘modernises’ the current Oath of Allegiance sworn by those taking British nationality, and ‘culture classes’ where would-be citizens will learn the ‘values’ of British culture, politics and way of life.
Blunkett has also caused uproar by suggesting that British Asians entering into arranged marriages should consider arranging them ‘within the settled community’, instead of bringing in spouses from abroad. His faked concern for young westernised men and women, who might be happier if they married someone who had grown up with the same cultural mix as them, was pitiful, and entirely failed to cover for a minute his true motive – reducing immigration.
Just as Blunkett’s ‘culture classes’ are strongly reminiscent of Norman Tebbitt’s ‘cricket test’, the attack on settled immigrants or their descendants being joined by their fiancés echoes the Tories’ ‘primary purpose’ law, whereby such marriages were scrutinised to ascertain that they were not purely being entered into to circumvent immigration control. This scrutiny took various forms, including interrogation of both parties and the infamous ‘virginity tests’ of women arriving to marry in Britain. Labour has already imposed a duty on registrars to report ‘suspicious’ marriages. There will now also be an Immigration Hotline, for ‘the public’ to grass up any immigrant or asylum seeker whom they suspect of ‘abusing the system’.
And if some of the 18,000 spouses and fiancés who arrive in Britain each year, mainly from the Indian sub-continent, are indeed motivated by something other than love, it is hardly surprising. Since 1971, it has been impossible to migrate to Britain for any reason other than to seek asylum or to marry. This has recently changed – but only for better-off, middle class immigrants. The Highly Skilled Migrants Programme was introduced on 28 January 2002, and permits high earners with ‘exceptional skills, abilities or experience’, whose current salaries are sufficiently high, to come to Britain to seek work. The result of this programme is that impoverished nations will be systematically drained of their skilled workforce.
Meanwhile, the poor of these countries have as few options as ever, and it is they who are targeted for exclusion under the tightening controls on marriages, just as it is they who are the focus of the draconian asylum laws and they who are incarcerated in the detention centres.
Furthermore, provisions are now to be introduced to ensure that most would-be refugees are screened out before they even set out to travel to Britain. Secure borders, Safe haven includes plans for a ‘resettlement programme...to establish legal gateways for certified refugees...avoiding dangerous and highly visible illegal methods of entry.’ This is not about facilitating entry for refugees, but about making it more difficult; however its introduction will no doubt be used to legitimise a whole host of repressive measures to prevent entry, by insisting that the existence of the ‘gateway’ discharges Britain’s legal responsibility to accept ‘genuine’ refugees.
There are also plans to cut back still further on the legal avenues of appeal open to those asylum applicants who do manage to reach Britain. These are described as ‘tough measures to prevent delay and obstruction in the appeals system and unmeritorious applications for judicial reviews’, and include making the Immigration Appeals Tribunal a Superior Court of Record (which means that its decisions cannot be challenged in the High Court), setting closure dates on appeals to stop multiple adjournments, tighter time limits on appeals; and ‘measures to ensure the merits test for public funding of legal representation is being applied properly’, which will mean in practice that any asylum seeker who does not win their case at the first stage of their application will risk having all further legal representation stopped on the basis that their claim is ‘unmeritorious’.
On 14 February an uprising of detainees at the newly-built Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre in Bedfordshire resulted in large parts of the centre being burned to the ground. Blunkett’s first reaction was to make clear that plans in the Safe haven White Paper to create 4,000 places for immigration detainees to be held while awaiting deportation or final appeals would still go ahead. With barely disguised contempt, he castigated the asylum seekers for their ingratitude: ‘I am not prepared to let government policy be determined by those intent on creating disorder and destruction. Having removed asylum seekers from prison, we now find that our reward is the burning down of a substantial part of the facility. This is deplorable...I intend to press ahead with expanding the number of places in secure removal centres to 4,000. There will be no uncertainty and no misunderstanding.’
The ‘removal centres’ are intended to be the last stop in a series of detention centres through which asylum seekers will be processed: a brief stay in a ‘reception centre’ (such as the one at Oakington) will be followed by a longer period in an ‘accommodation centre’, from where successful asylum applicants will be released, while unsuccessful ones proceed to the final stage prior to deportation: the ‘removal centre’. The accommodation centres are yet to be built, although the government has named eight sites (mainly ex-RAF bases) from which it plans to choose four. Asylum seekers will not be physically detained in the accommodation centres but if they do not sleep in the centre, all financial and material support will be withdrawn from them.
Prior to the Yarl’s Wood uprising, Blunkett had been heaving a sigh of relief at having finally moved the 600 asylum seekers previously housed in criminal prisons into detention centres. Whether they are now returned to prison or not, immigration detainees make up a fraction of the prison population of England and Wales, which has increased by 8,000 since Labour came into government. It currently stands at 69,000 and is predicted to reach 73,000 by July. The political rhetoric of police chiefs and politicians is doing nothing to reverse this trend and everything to encourage it. Despite a massive privately financed prison-building programme, the existing prisons are becoming increasingly overcrowded and prisoners are being forced to share cells designed for one person, with a regularity reminiscent of the late 1980s when overcrowding and inhumane conditions preceded the biggest wave of prison uprisings ever known in this country.
Blunkett’s ‘answer’ to the overcrowding has been to beg the Treasury for more money for yet more prisons, and to propose the introduction of ‘weekend prisons’: a ‘third way’ between community service and imprisonment, where people on remand or convicted of non-violent crimes will be locked up at weekends and in the evenings, but released during the day to work. They will be housed in ‘semi-secure urban hostels’ and monitored by means of electronic tagging.
The overwhelming likelihood is that this scheme will not reduce the prison population, and those sentenced to such orders are most likely to be those who otherwise would have been given community service or other non-imprisonment punishments. This has been the result of all previous such initiatives, including suspended sentences and community service orders, and the net effect will be an overall increase in the number of people subject to some form of monitoring or control by the burgeoning criminal justice industry.
Predictably, however, the ‘weekend prison’ announcement precipitated a chorus of criticism about the government being a ‘soft touch’ for criminals. Blunkett therefore made sure that his next announcement about tagging and curfewing was shorn of all hint of creeping reformism, and was sold on its crime-cutting, as opposed to prison population-cutting, potential. This time, however, the targets for the tagging were innocent children: unconvicted 12 to 18-year-olds on bail, awaiting trial. And behind the rhetoric about communities crying out for protection from ‘teenage thugs’, there was no actual indication as to how this scheme will protect anyone or do anything other than mark out the tagged youths for a mixture of admiration and victimisation.
On 5 February Blunkett announced plans for the first compulsory identity card since 1952, when Winston Churchill ended the scheme brought in during the 1939-1945 war. This is yet another example of the Labour government boldly going where the Tories feared to tread. Although both John Major and Michael Howard were in favour of the introduction of ID cards, neither pursued the idea, when met with internal as well as external opposition. Labour has no such qualms.
Blunkett floated the idea of an ID card scheme as an anti-terrorist measure in the wake of 11 September. Although its use for this purpose was clearly absurd and it did not form part of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act, it was obvious then that the idea was not going to be shelved altogether, but would merely be refined in order to resurface at a later date.
An Applicant Registration Card has already been introduced for newly-arriving asylum seekers, and the plan is to build on this scheme, in order to create an ‘entitlement card’. Blunkett and the eager boffins working on the plans for the new cards have been waxing lyrical about the benefits of cards embedded with microchips which contain details of the holder’s eligibility and priority for healthcare, education and social security payments, and which can even record whether the holder is entitled to use public libraries. ‘We’re interested in looking at a card, potentially a biometric card, that would enable people to access services...We’re not interested in just having another form of ID because people already have a passport or driving licence...’ Apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany meet 1984 and Brave New World.
In 1996 we described the Manifesto of the New Labour government-in-waiting as ‘the road to social fascism’:
‘The concept of social fascism dates back to the early 1930s, when the communist movement argued that social democracy and fascism were the twin pillars of capitalism, and that social democracy in government was prepared either to use military force to crush working class revolt or to surrender to those forces which would – open fascism. In Italy and Germany the strength of the revolutionary and communist forces...meant that social democracy could not carry out the programme capitalism required, and so the naked terror of fascism was necessary...Today, in the absence of any working class movement...New Labour has a free hand to establish the sort of dictatorship of capital that is a precondition to salvaging British imperialism’s fortunes’.
For this, we were criticised by the ‘left’ either for hysterically exaggerating or, worse still, for being ‘pessimistic’ about the party they still forlornly hoped would save them from Tory excess. The years since then have borne out what we said. Any fascist regime would be happy to operate the measures being implemented today by David Blunkett and his cohorts to oppress the British working class, squeeze out unwelcome foreigners and marshal the reserve army of labour to serve the needs of capitalism.