News Analysis: Home Office hurt by asylum critics

The Government faces an enormous challenge to win public support for its immigration policy in the face of a sceptical tabloid press.

The death of at least 20 Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay earlier this month was the latest example of a story of human tragedy in which the media's spotlight turned on the issue of illegal immigrants and the Government's immigration policy.

The event is the second of its kind in recent years, after 58 Chinese illegal immigrants suffocated in the back of a lorry in Dover in 2001 en route to a life in the UK.

Coupled with other stories warning of an 'influx' of migrants to the UK after the EU is enlarged in May, the Home Office comms team is charged with juggling some of the biggest stories dominating the current news agenda.

The Home Office manages immigration control and is responsible for processing increasing numbers of asylum applications. Home Secretary David Blunkett has set tough targets for his department in terms of removing failed asylum seekers from the UK and the department reports it has successfully met these targets.

The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 gave increased powers to the Home Office, which says it removed more failed asylum seekers last year than any other government. The department uses these figures to drive home the message that it is tough and effective in dealing with this emotive subject, but it denies it is pandering to right-wing agendas.

Blunkett has publicly welcomed the forthcoming opening of EU borders set for May and says the UK needs immigrant workers who will be able to work in the UK without work permits.

But in Parliament earlier last week, the Conservative Party suggested citizens from the former Soviet Union will cross into the UK to search for work and that the Government was unprepared.

A frenzy of tabloid coverage

This notion sparked a frenzy of negative coverage in the tabloid press, including a front-page lead in the Daily Express on Monday 9 February headlined 'Gypsy Crisis'.

In response, the Home Office is looking at a package of measures to ensure that the benefits system is not open to abuse.

However, The Daily Mail and other tabloids have also had a similar pop at Home Office policy in recent weeks, implying the department is too soft.

The publicity battle between the Home Office and the tabloids is clearly far from over, and, so far in this round, the media gloves have been off.

But who has won the public vote? Immigration Watch chairman, Andrew Green, believes the public is siding with the press and uses the results of a Mori poll to give weight to his argument.

He says: 'The Government is failing to get across the overall picture of the immigration situation. The Home Office is calling for a debate on the immigration picture, but it is avoiding this debate and focusing on particular aspects such as the Dover-Calais stretch. Its public relations techniques are not paying attention to the overall picture, favouring certain aspects that it hopes will be more favourable. This isn't succeeding because no one believes it.'

He cites a Mori poll from February 2003, which found 76 per cent of people do not believe the Government is being open and honest about immigration, and claims the Government relies on 'spin doctors' who are now discredited.

On the flip side, however, some of the broadsheets have taken the opposite position and believe policy is too tough. For example, a front-page article in The Independent on Monday 9 February covered Amnesty International's attack on the asylum system, when the charity accused the Home Office of ignorance in processing people's asylum applications.

Human rights NGOs and charities frequently criticise immigration policy and the department's key messages.

An Amnesty International spokeswoman says: 'The Home Office is giving out the wrong messages. (Asylum and immigration are) seen as a problem and about reducing numbers, but these people are individuals. It is responding to a certain type of politics, which ignores human rights.'

The Refugee Council calls for a higher-quality public debate on the country's immigration and asylum issues. A spokesman says: 'The quality of debate on this issue is poor and the public does not have a balanced or realistic view on these issues. The Home Office is challenged by some myths put out by anti-immigration groups, such as that we do not benefit from immigration.'

Public lack of understanding

In a recent survey, the Refugee Council asked people what percentage of the world's immigration the UK takes. The average response was 20 per cent, but the real figure is just two per cent, according to the refugee body, which demonstrates the lack of understanding of immigration and asylum.

Thus the Home Office's immigration policy finds itself being attacked from all angles, and is accused of being both too severe and too lenient.

The Home Office press team is left to manage this issue, along with many others. It faces a 24-hour media, in the knowledge that immigration stories can boost newspaper circulation as the issue continues to take centre stage on the news agenda.

There is rarely a week when the Home Office escapes the headlines, which trigger a wave of reactive behaviour in the press office.

The Home Office declined to speak about its PR and about how it intends to generate positive coverage of its immigration policy, but one former senior government communicator outlines the scale of the problem: 'The challenge is that a government department can endlessly explain what it is doing, but it faces a cynical press in a modern and frantic sound-bite world.'

He also points out that observers will always believe that a government department should be involved in every issue that appears to fall within its sphere of interest, but claims this is unrealistic.

'The key for the Home Office is to indicate where it can make a difference, where it can get properly involved and what action will be taken,' he says. 'It must also explain where it does or does not have a role. That is not necessarily a negative, but it will often seem that way unless it is conveyed effectively.'

The breakdown of trust between the media and the Government is painfully apparent on the issue of asylum and immigration. And for government PROs, convincing the tabloid press of its view seems to be a challenge too far.

ASYLUM: THE NUMBERS

- Eurotunnel estimates 150 asylum seekers a day try to board trains bound for London Waterloo from France

- 76,000 people applied for asylum in the UK last year, up 30,000 from 1996

- Many people who try to get past UK borders are refugees from Iraq, Iran and Afganistan

- The Home Office says last year it removed 14,000 failed asylum seekers, the highest number that any government has ever achieved.

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