“Never underestimate the determination of a quiet man” – so said Iain Duncan Smith when he was leader of the Conservative Party. He didn’t last all that long as Tory leader after that speech, which was widely ridiculed.
He has since reinvented himself as a politician who goes where others fear to tread – notorious housing estates, failing schools and drug rehabilitation projects. He founded the Centre for Social Justice (CJS), a think tank that takes a small state, strong society approach to finding “effective solutions to the poverty that blight parts of Britain”. The CJS has the ear of David Cameron and ran his Social Justice Policy Commission last year.
I went along to the launch of the Centre for Social Justice’s new policy programme at a new youth centre in Bermondsey today. The press was there in force to see Jonathan Aitken, the former MP and Minister who was jailed for perjury, announced as the chair of their Prison Reform Programme. I was sat a few seats away from Mr Aitken, but I was more interested in Mr Duncan Smith’s announcement of an investigation into asylum policy:
“Society has a duty of care to the most vulnerable, who are often ignored by politicians and the media. It is estimated that there are about a quarter of a million destitute failed asylum seekers. The majority are not allowed to claim benefits and are also forbidden to work, or even to volunteer; yet the Courts refuse to deport them back to countries deemed unsafe. The law effectively forces them into destitution, illegal activity and vulnerability. Meanwhile the asylum procedure is overburdened and chaotic, and citizens have lost confidence in it. The result is a growing destitute underclass in society that is only being supported by voluntary organisations. A radical overhaul is needed.”
This is a far cry from the 2005 General Election, which the Conservatives fought on a pledge to withdraw the UK from the UN refugee convention, and though David Cameron has deliberately dealt with asylum separately from immigration, it is still encouraging to hear a senior Conservative saying “We want to emphasise that asylum seekers are not economic migrants. In the main they are human beings seeking refuge from assault and hardship (and whose claim to asylum itself creates danger for them).”
The Centre for Social Justice is to begin hearing evidence soon – and is keen to hear from voluntary organisations who pick up the pieces after asylum seekers have become destitute. You can find contact details for them here.
It remains to be seen whether the Centre for Social Justice can persuade the Conservatives to adopt a policy that ends destitution, but it can only help. And Iain Duncan Smith seems to have some personal commitment to this issue, speaking about his encounters with destitute refused asylum seekers with passion.
Perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate the determination of a quiet man…