Today we visited our MP (Alan Whitehead MP) for the first time. Being new to this whole experience I thought that I would write about what we have found out so far…
Asylum Seekers in the UK
For a long time my wife (Laura) and I have felt that we can either sit around moaning about certain aspects of our country or we could do something about them. Unfortunately, we then tended to just sit around moaning about things rather than doing anything about them, but last year we got a letter from our MP asking us which issues we particularly cared about. This seemed like a good time to spring into action so we did! For Laura this meant looking into the topic that she cares most strongly about – asylum seekers and refugees, and over the Christmas period did lots of research into the issues that this group of vulnerable people face (with the help of the excellently resourced Refugee Council website). Of course, the asylum issue had a lot of press recently (which is another reason that the timing seemed appropriate) but a lot of this press has, in my opinion, been quite negative. After Nick Griffith’s little turn on Newsnight, fueled by the likes of the Daily Mail & Express, there seemed to be a rush from mainstream politicians to convince the electorate that they will crack down on illegal migrants and that they therefore don’t need to vote for extreme right wing groups. Although I applaud the motivation of stopping groups like the BNP, I think that they would be better off presenting a more reasoned case about our immigration policy. This debate always seems to come down to people trying to come and take “our” stuff. You may well hold this opinion about economic migrants (I don’t but I don’t want to get distracted by this issue) but it is rarely true for asylum seekers – those people who are fleeing persecution – and refugees – asylum seekers that the government has agreed were fleeing persecution and have therefore allowed to remain in the UK. So often these three groups of people are all grouped together which I think is a great shame, by not distinguishing them I think it is a lot easier for right wing groups to take over the debate and focus it upon whether or not people should be allowed into the country at all. If you were to recognise them as separate in the debate, then I think it would be a lot easier to appeal to peoples humanity, and make them realize that if we want to be a good society then we have to help these people, whether they take our jobs or not.
Conscious of this backdrop, Laura’s research lead her to two specific issues that seemed to be a lot less controversial and which we therefore hoped could be changed:
- Section 4 asylum seekers (those who have been refused asylum but are unable to be sent home, usually due to something like a civil war in their home country) are still being supported by vouchers which limit where they can buy goods from and also what type of goods they can buy. A government committee described this practice as being “inhumane” in 2002 and therefore stopped it for asylum seekers and yet this inhumane practice is still being inflicted on people in this particular group.
- Asylum seekers are not allowed to work. This means that they are solely dependent on our welfare state to survive. It forces them to live in poverty as well making them feeling guilty for not being able to support their family. This is an issue that has widespread support, even from the likes of the Trade Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry and yet the government seems determined not to change.
Lobbying our MP
Having picked these two issues, Laura then wrote a letter to Alan Whitehead MP and soon after received a response inviting us to today’s visit. We were given a 10 minute slot with which to talk (although as it turned out we actually got 30 minutes) with him at one of his regular surgeries here in Shirley. As this was the first time that we had done something like this, I don’t think either of us knew what we could expect to achieve and it did not start well as he outlined several arguments that could be given why the voucher system should remain. I have to say that I fundamentally disagree with his main point that vouchers will make it easier to keep track of people; even if a monetary system were used, they would still need to collect it and therefore could still be monitored in the same way. On the “let them work” issue he was a lot more enthusiastic and I think largely agreed with the aim of the campaign. Despite this enthusiasm, we then moved onto discussing the “current climate” by which he meant that it is an issue that a lot of people are currently urging the government to crack down on and one where officers in the various visa services are now approaching with refreshed zeal. This meant that the conversation ended on a rather depressing note with the thought that if anything things were going to get worse for asylum seekers rather than better.
Lessons about the democratic process
One thing that I noticed whilst discussing the first issue was that he was very non-committal using phrases such as “others would argue”, I think this was for two reasons: firstly I don’t think he actually agreed that the voucher scheme should be scrapped (and to be fair he did say so more bluntly towards the end of the conversation), secondly, I think for a large part I never got the feeling that there was much he could do about it. The feeling that he didn’t think there was anything he could do about it was backed up whilst discussing the let them work campaign. Despite broadly agreeing with us, he never gave the impression that he thought that it is likely to change or that he himself could do anything about it. This has left me feeling slightly disappointed about the role that is played by our MP. Last year, I read the excellent biography of William Wilberforce and I think that a little part of me wanted to meet another great parliamentarian who would take leadership on this issue and persuade people both within and outside of parliament of the importance of this issue. In reality I think that times have vastly changed since then with party politics playing a much bigger role in defining policy and better communication and press means that I think MPs are now a lot more closely connected to the electorate. This makes issues such as this, where there is such a vocal community wanting harsher measures, it is unlikely that one visit is going to be able to change government policy. This may seem like a depressing note on which to end this post although I do not think it is. Through this process, I have learnt how sensitive our MP is to public opinion and therefore I now grasp how important it is not just to lobby our MP but also how important the public mood is at influencing our politicians. Therefore I would urge anyone who agrees with these issues (or other issues) to get in touch with their MP as it is only when we do this on-mass that they are likely to do what we want them too – as I said earlier, sitting around and moaning to ourselves about them won’t get anything changed!