The secret machinations of the Home Office are now laid bare. While pretending to ignore MigrationWatch, the Home Office dovecotes have been fluttering with agitated officials trying to dredge up some means of defending the government’s record on immigration.
The truth came out in response to an application to the Home Office - under the Government’s freedom of information rules - for information held on MigrationWatch.
The ‘target’ for response is 20 working days. In the event, they prevaricated for seven months before revealing the e-mail chatter triggered by our work.
It turned out to be a fascinating read. For two years the Home Office has been virtually silent in public about MigrationWatch.
Behind the scenes they have attempted to dismiss our work. They have labelled us as “anti- immigrant”. Letters from Labour MPs have described us as “opposed to a multicultural society” – intended, you may think, as a smear.
Similar ‘guidance’ has been offered to the Press, off the record of course, by Home Office spin doctors.
Publicly, Government policy has been a stiff upper lip. No MigrationWatch statement has been seriously contested on the record – and for a very simple reason.Evasions
What a contrast with the spin doctors’ response to these revelations; they insisted that MigrationWatch gives an over inflated picture of levels of migration – a picture, they claimed, that “is damaging to public confidence”.
In fact, what are really damaging to public confidence are the Government’s continual evasions of the truth in the face of growing, and thoroughly justified, public concern.
Clearly, great efforts were made to sanitise this material but there was so much of it that it was impossible to remove all the embarrassing references.
Piecing together the story from 50 pages of Home Office extracts, we start in November 2002 with the note of a ministerial meeting:
“At the ministers (sic) meeting today we discussed impending immigration policy and presentation and noted the activities of the new lobbying organisation Migrationwatch (see cover of Mail today) who as you know are against any form of migration (sic).
“Ministers would like us to be in a position to be able to respond to, and be ahead of some of the ideas, facts and figures that they are promulgating. We need to form a small network of people to act in the same flexible, fleet of foot way as Migrationwatch.”
After two years of a Home Office media campaign against us, we were gratified and amused to read this revealing, if backhanded, compliment.
Two weeks later, in response to this ministerial request, a special group of officials were set up to combat MigrationWatch. They were to hold fortnightly meetings, stay in touch by e-mail and, ominously, to “monitor Migrationwatch mailings and conferences.”
Positive alternative contacts were to be “encouraged” and a report was to be sent to Ministers about exactly how the new group planned to work.
They promptly set about producing lengthy briefs. By the following January there were 16 pages of rebuttal. The technique in each case was similar – to focus on some trivial or irrelevant detail. No attempt was made to deny the broad thrust of MigrationWatch material – again because they couldn’t.
There was a particular panic in July last year when MigrationWatch published a paper showing that immigration could add perhaps one million to the demand for new houses.
A Home Office Minister, presumably David Blunkett judging from the scale of the panic, called for briefing from throughout Whitehall.
Unfortunately, the briefing said that “the figures quoted by Migrationwatch are broadly correct…Migrationwatch are broadly correct…Migrationwatch are correct in saying that projections of the number of households are based on 1996 data”.
Meanwhile, the next full set of household projections was not expected until early 2005. The briefing continued: “It is difficult to rebut the claim that net inward migration will increase. Across the world, migration is on the way up.”
Officials were also nervous about the arguments that the Home Office were making about the need for migration to combat an ageing population.
One of them wrote: “I am sure you will agree that this briefing needs to have a solid foundation based on evidence, otherwise Migrationwatch are going to be able to successfully challenge it. Certain lines based on the fact that the UK has an ageing population, migrants are younger and therefore migration can help mitigate the impact of ageing population, are unlikely to be robust enough.”
Or, in plain language, these arguments were rubbish.
When, in August 2003, the Government had to revise its immigration statistics, officials were again nervous.
They wrote: “It is likely that this will be picked up at some point by either the media or Migrationwatch. It is likely to fuel the criticism that was levelled at the asylum statistics and be taken as admission that government statistics are flawed and disguise the true extent of immigration to the UK. Migrationwatch will see it as a vindication”.
Indeed so. How did they guess?
The papers also cast a sinister light on the relationship between the Office for National Statistics (ONS) which is supposed to be independent and the Home Office.
The ONS are caught asking for views as to which method of reviewing the population projections would be most palatable to the Home Office from a presentational point of view. One is bound to ask why they should be asking the question at all.
It is their job to produce reliable and credible statistics. The convenience of the Home Office Press department should not be a consideration.
The revelation that the Home Office have secretly gone to such lengths to try to counter MigrationWatch, and have failed, adds still further to our credibility.
But the papers as a whole reveal a degree of politicisation of the Home Office that is alarming.
Huge resources are being put into the effort to present Home Office Ministers in the best possible light. It does not seem to have occurred to anyone that, in the long term, simply telling the truth would be a much more effective strategy.
Instead, as elsewhere in Government, getting the spin right today is the main objective today. Unfortunately for them, people are not as gullible as they seem to think. They saw through it all long ago.
Indeed, a recent opinion poll showed that 80 per cent of respondents believe that the Government is not being open and honest about the scale of immigration to Britain - a stunning indictment of the Government’s credibility.
And this rare glimpse of the Home Office’s inner workings amply confirms the public impression.
Sir Andrew Green is a former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Syria.
© Copyright of Sir Andrew Green
The Daily Mail, London, August 23, 2004