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A less combative approach is needed to tackle illegal migration

(Alamy)

3 min read

In January, the Prime Minister unveiled his five pledges: halve inflation this year, grow the economy, reduce national debt, tackle NHS waiting lists, and “stop the boats”. Rishi Sunak has my full support as he pursues these goals, but if I were in government, I would achieve some in a slightly different manner.

The first three pledges concern the health of our economy, an area of policy the Conservatives are traditionally and rightly more trusted with than Labour. I served in John Major’s government, and despite creating a budget surplus and a healthy economy by 1997, the public lost confidence in our ability to handle public finances and we were punished at the ballot box.  

“Trussonomics” caused serious reputational damage to my party and economic havoc for our country. It would be wrong to blame Brexit entirely for our current economic woes, but increased friction and bureaucracy with our single largest trading partner has certainly not helped, and we need to improve productivity in our industries and businesses to keep us competitive. This must be a priority for the government now.  

A key part of my approach would be embellishing the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union to help British businesses, including the creation of a ministerial role to oversee EU trading relationships, which would ensure businesses have a clear channel for communication to express concerns and limit impediments to market growth. 

The Windsor Framework ushered in a new era of UK-EU relations, so now we need to seize the new opportunities.  

We need to abandon the Rwanda plan – it cannot be the solution

On the NHS I welcome the extra funding that has been announced but I think we need to deploy fresh thinking to deliver healthcare at all levels, using the latest technology and maximising the varied skills we have available. More services at primary care level with preventive medicine, speeding up approval of new drugs and approaches with less bureaucracy would make a big difference.  

We all agree on the need to “stop the boats”, but the question is: how? If I we’re the immigration minister, as I was in the 1990s, I would approach things, firstly, without threatening our international agreements. We need to abandon the Rwanda plan – it cannot be the solution. So far, more home secretaries have gone there than asylum seekers! We need to put more resources into initial assessment of asylum applicants and expand safe and legal routes for them, extending initial appraisals to the United Kingdom’s embassies and consulates around the world, as used to be the case. This would take some of the pressure off domestic decisions and help stem the tide of boats crossing the English Channel in perilous conditions.  

I welcome a new determination to prosecute more people traffickers. We should also remember that asylum seekers come here in other ways too: in lorries, by air, and by ship. We should not ignore those.  

This is not a problem unique to the UK; it impacts our continental neighbours even more than us. As an MEP, I was involved in drafting the EU Dublin Regulation which allowed us to return asylum seekers to Europe. But those regulations were imperfect, and I believe the new policies recently announced by the EU should work more effectively. The UK should help shape the new schemes and be associated with them.  

We should support the Prime Minister to deliver his five pledges, but the method of delivery needs to be projected in a pragmatic, non-ideological way based on One Nation Conservative values and a willingness to co-operate more with our neighbours.

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