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Diane Abbott: “Sometimes immigration is a value-free debate. It’s not treating people as if they are people”

Emilio Casalicchio

9 min read

From opposition to detention centres to rhetoric on immigration, we know what Labour are against when it comes to home affairs. But what proposals are the party putting forward? Emilio Casalicchio talks to Diane Abbott to find out

As Diane Abbott toils away at her office desk she is reminded by Paddington Bear that ‘immigration is not a crime’. A small canvas featuring a graffiti image of the iconic Peruvian expat beams the slogan from a high shelf onto her workspace below. It is an illustration of the friendly approach to migration the Labour party is keen to push - even if it does neglect the need to create and therefore police immigration rules.

The Shadow Home Secretary came up against the harsh realities of the immigration system last week when she visited women at Yarl’s Wood detention centre. She spent a year demanding access to the controversial Bedfordshire lockup before the Government finally relented. What she found there has left her reeling. “It’s a very horrifying system and I met a lot of traumatised women,” she says, looking down at the table in her small Portcullis House office.

“If you have committed a crime you have a release date. If you are in immigration detention you have no release date. And one of the things that makes it so traumatising is not knowing when they are going to be released at all and the thing going on for months and months. And then sometimes they get bailed but then they are snatched again and put back inside Yarl’s Wood.”

Abbott puts her head in her hands and stares into the void of wood at her elbows as she recounts some of the dark stories hidden away in deportation purgatory. One woman had been inside for seven months without knowing how to explain it to her five British-national kids at home. Another was suffering from large fibroids and in need of medical attention. “I met women who said they were victims of sexual trafficking and sexual abuse. The Government said they don’t put people like that in Yarl’s Wood and yet they are there,” Abbott laments. “I think we owe these women a duty of care and I think it must be possible to manage the system better.”

But despite the multitude of complaints about the system, Labour has few solutions aside from the manifesto pledge to end indefinite immigration detention. Abbott is unable to say what the party would do on day one of government with the notorious detention centres littered around the country and the 30,000 people who come up against the system every year. Supporters of the leadership might hope for them to be closed down as soon as possible, but Abbott offers no hint that that would be the case. “We are working on our proposals for immigration detention centres and when we finally agree them you will be the first to know,” she says.

A lack of clarity is the current holding pattern for Labour on immigration in general. The party is under pressure to reveal what kind of system it would put in place when freedom of movement ends after Brexit. But – like the Tories – there has been little hint of what the final picture would look like. Labour has been at pains to insist it will be “fair” on immigration – managing to duck the fact that an all-but inevitable choice of allowing some into the country over others is coming down the line.

Last week Abbott began what she dubbed a series of “lectures” on Labour immigration plans with a focus on party “values” rather than the concrete proposals necessary. On more than one occasion the Hackney MP has come under fire for suggesting the debate in the UK is tinged with racism – and it is clear those concerns are a primary motivation for the latest approach.

“I think sometimes immigration is a value-free debate,” she explains. “It’s not treating people as if they are people… So, I think you have to start with migrants’ basic humanity and you have to build a system which is both fair and efficient. Because the current system isn’t fair on would-be migrants – or refugees for that matter – and it’s not really fair on people who work in immigration because they have an awful job. They are under resourced, they are understaffed and there is this constant pressure from ministers.”

Abbott offers a little more clarity on other Home Affairs issues. Despite calling for a rethink on the so-called ‘war on drugs’ back in 2014 she insists there will be no shift towards the legalisation of cannabis for either medicinal or recreational use at least before the next Labour manifesto. However, she argues that the current system has turned nations like Colombia into a “narcotics paradise” and cites the damaging use of opiates in middle America as she hints that some change in approach could be forthcoming.

“The war on drugs isn’t working internationally,” she declares. “We are not seeing in this country falling numbers of addicted people. I think we do have to look at what we are doing and what’s working and what’s not working.” Abbott suggests better access to treatment, improved rehab facilities and more joined-up working on homelessness and substance abuse will be championed by the party as ways forward.

On the counterterror front, Abbott reveals Labour is looking into the movement of funds through Bitcoin. There are fears the crypto-currency and others like could become the capital of choice for jihadist groups, money launderers and other criminals keen to bypass the system and keep their illicit and often deadly activities below the radar. The electronic cash is stateless and can be moved between anonymised addresses across the world with ease. Offers of drugs and child pornography in exchange for Bitcoin on the infamous Dark Web have been unearthed, while the WannaCry ransomware attack that hit the NHS last May offered to free machines for a fee paid in the currency.

Abbott makes clear she is not on the side of Bitcoin enthusiasts who see it as the future of money and a revolution in democratic accountability. “One of the problems with Bitcoin is the extent to which it is just a gigantic Ponzi scheme,” she declares. “If everyone took their Bitcoin money and tried to buy a new car all at once the whole thing would collapse. So, we are worried about the extent to which Bitcoin is a Ponzi scheme but we are certainly worried about how in the here and now it is being used to fund terrorist activity and that is something we are looking at.”

Asked whether a Labour government would move to regulate or restrict crypto-currencies, Abbott points to the speech by Jeremy Corbyn last month in which he vowed to curb the power of financial services as part of a “fundamental rethink” in their freedoms. “Labour overall thinks it’s important to have proper regulation of financial services,” she says. “It was poor regulation of financial services which led to the 2008 crash and obviously regulating Bitcoin would be part of that.” Needless to say, she doesn’t own any Bitcoin, CryptoKitties or Rare Pepe trading cards.

As International Women’s Day approaches, Abbott says the scourge of domestic violence is the Home Affairs issue closest to her heart when it comes to policy around women and girls. Two women are killed each week by a current or former partner in England and Wales and one in four experiences domestic violence in her lifetime, according to the Office for National Statistics. Abbott lays into the government for “putting off” new domestic violence legislation promised by the Prime Minister, and issues a warning that the upcoming laws must be robust.

“I’m very anxious that the government bill is not just a token bill but deals with the generality of issues around violence against women and girls,” she says.

Abbott explains that the bill must look at how victims are treated by social services when it comes to welfare and housing, and she wants action to stop the plummeting number of women’s refuges - noting that Labour wants a National Refuge Fund.

“I think the bill potentially presents an important moment to broaden the debate around domestic violence so it’s not just seen as a narrow criminal justice issue but a very broad social issue,” she says. “Because all the evidence is that levels of domestic violence are rising and there is some evidence that during a recession where people are under economic pressure you do see more violence, particularly in the family.” 

When elected in 1987 Abbott was one of just 21 female MPs in the Commons and the first black woman. In her office sits a proud and now vintage front page of Afro-Caribbean newspaper The Voice with the headline: ‘A new era. Will there be a black caucus at Westminster?’ She says the atmosphere was “much more male” back then and recalls a sense “that women were tolerated rather than accepted - and that went for some Labour MPs as well as a lot of Tories”.

Thirty years on and the debate around gender representation has taken another leap to include the divisive trans issue. Some Labour feminists are outraged that trans women are being allowed onto all-female candidate shortlists because - they argue - improving transgender rights should not mean women have to miss out on places. But Abbott says the debate around social advance should not be fought through the prism of who loses out when a minority group gains.

“Trans women are women and therefore they are entitled to be on all women shortlists,” she insists. “You need to be careful about that kind of deficit model of social advance. That’s a bit like saying if you have more women MPs there are fewer places for working class men. It’s not a deficit model, it’s about having a parliamentary Labour party which looks like Britain.”

But a Labour party which looks like Britain surely cannot be a Labour party which has never had a female leader. Abbott was herself eliminated in the first round of the 2010 leadership election when she got just 7.4% of support. She says she would never stand again - but she is clear a change has to come. Not wanting to generate headlines, Abbott insists Corbyn will run the party for the foreseeable future. But she says when the time comes for him to move on “there will be people saying we at least have to look” at having a woman take Labour forward. “I do believe in having a woman leader,” she adds. “I put my money where my mouth is on that question.” 

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