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In October 2011, David Cameron made his first major speech on immigration since becoming Prime Minister. It is a speech best remembered for its tough measures to try and enforce an immigration cap: action to bring down the number of foreign workers and students and spouses.

But Cameron quietly tried to balance such toughness against another message, this time on his government’s moral obligation to look after outsiders in need. “Britain will always be open to those seeking asylum from persecution”, he explained. “That says something very important about the kind of country we are. We should be proud of that”.

It was a remarkably clear statement of asylum rights. And it made asylum policy a central feature of a political tightrope act: compassionate rhetoric on refugees, to free up space needed for vigorous action on immigration as a whole.

We have reached a crucial moment in the coalition’s approach to asylum. As we start Refugee Week, asylum policy is under scrutiny from the influential Home Affairs Committee, which took evidence last week from my colleague Debora Singer. This follows the decision in March to drag management of the immigration and asylum system unceremoniously back under the direct control of Ministers.

The coalition is not only walking a tightrope on protection policy, of course. For all its early Rose-Garden-imbued projection of common purpose, this government has always tried to pursue more than one strategic direction at a time.

Take deficit reduction, supposedly its uniting aim. For some MPs and Ministers, tighter purse-strings are a regrettable but not insurmountable obstacle in the way of implementing the ‘fairness agenda’. This new-found, modernising stance had defined the rise of a fresh breed of Tories, and captured the kind of centrist messaging which Lib Dems hoped would be the making of them in government.

For others, though, austerity has presented an active opportunity to roll back the state. For them, restricted spending is ideologically welcome. Lower spending doesn’t prevent government doing something else. The state withdrawing its noses from private lives is a good in itself.

The rights and wrongs of these philosophies aside, it makes for fascinating viewing. Pro-austerity types, pushed out of sight like embarrassing relatives in 2010, are ascendant. So too are the more uncompromising voices on the Lib Dem frontbench, best personified by Danny Alexander.

On asylum, the modernising battle is still being played-out.

Some steps are extremely welcome. Ministers have finally recognised the desperate struggle women in particular face when they ask for help in the UK (Home Office decisions are overturned by judges in far greater proportions for women than for men). New policy on ending violence against all women and girls features long-overdue commitments to address this.

Helping Afghan translators flee the Taliban for the UK showed the coalition was pretty well attuned to public good sense on what was fair and decent, even if the policy still needs to go further.

Training for officials has been improved. The information on which decisions are based has been enhanced.

And yet, and yet.

Ask any of Asylum Aid’s lawyers, and they will tell you about the men, women and families with whom they work: people fleeing the most dangerous parts of the world and abandoned without news from the Home Office for months on end, only to receive incomprehensible and illogical decisions when one finally does appear. People with torture scars are accused of inflicting the injuries on themselves. Rape victims are accused of making the whole thing up.

These parts of the asylum system remain wholly untouched by the modernising forces in the coalition. This is where the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about taking “pride in who we are” sounds very thin indeed.

Even in times of austerity, small changes can nudge the asylum system closer to Cameron’s confident, modern “reflection of who we are”. Asylum Aid has talked to government about cost-effective innovations: early communication to draw-up consensus between lawyers, asylum seekers and officials; shifting funds around the Home Office and Ministry of Justice to incentivise better behaviour from all involved.

But charities like ours are about to face a third tranche of cuts to earned legal aid in three years. Force asylum charities out of business and our clients don’t have legal advice. Innovation and ideas dry up.

So modernising Ministers have a choice. Build on what has already been achieved, guided by that commitment to lead a government founded on fairness and competence. Or watch incremental progress on the asylum system slip back – and revisit the dismal delays and rising backlogs of years gone by.

Dr. Russell Hargrave is the Public Affairs Officer at Asylum Aid.

Follow Russell on Twitter.


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