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Garden Court Chambers sign letter of complaint against Home Office press release demonising asylum seekers

Tuesday 30 March 2021

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We, alongside other prominent barristers' chambers, have raised a complaint about 20 March 2021 press release headed ‘Alarming rise of abuse within modern slavery system’, published on the UK government website at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/alarming-rise-of-abuse-within-modern-slavery-system

The document is identified as emanating from ‘Home Office’ and ‘The Rt Hon Priti Patel MP’, which are hyperlinked to https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/home-office and https://www.gov.uk/government/people/priti-patel respectively.

Publication of the press release on a UK government website and its emanation from a government department and the minister with responsibility for that department suggest that it is not published as an expression of personal opinion in a private capacity or as campaigning material in a political campaign but is information purportedly being conveyed in the public interest. Its appearance on a UK government website indicates that it was produced and published by civil servants subject to the Civil Service Code.

Our complaint is that, as described below, the press release breached the Civil Service Code by contravening its core values. It follows that anyone involved in drafting, publishing and/or promoting it, whose employment by the Civil Service makes them subject to that code, was or is violating the Civil Service Code.

WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE PRESS RELEASE?

1. The heading and sub-heading
The heading ‘Alarming rise of abuse within modern slavery system’ reads as though a rise in abuses of the system has been discovered and is being announced. Nothing within the article provides any foundation in fact for an announcement of such a kind. Any suggestion that the heading simply identifies a fear or suspicion about what may occur in the future would be disingenuous at best, because it is not qualified in such a manner.

The sub-heading ‘Major increases in child rapists, people who threaten national security and failed asylum seekers clogging up modern slavery system’ merely compounds the false impression and indicates that it is being conveyed deliberately.


2. Use of the formulation ‘child rapists, people who pose a threat to our national security, serious criminals and failed asylum seekers’

The list ‘child rapists, people who pose a threat to our national security, serious criminals and failed asylum seekers’ (which a Google search reveals has recently been repeated in a number of different places) suggests a false equivalence between, on the one hand, ‘child rapists, people who pose a threat to our national security and serious criminals’ and, on the other ‘failed asylum seekers’.

While the former three categories all contain people who have demonstrably posed a serious danger to the public in some way, the final category, ‘failed asylum seekers’, does not. Asylum claims may fail for all sorts of reasons other than just credibility: insufficient evidence, a change in risk since the claim was made but before it was decided, or disagreement about the nature and extent of the risk.

It is by no means unusual for people who have failed in an initial claim for asylum to succeed in a subsequent attempt after the production of further evidence or a change in the country situation that bears out the claimant’s fears.

Again, any suggestion that the list is not implying an equivalence between failed asylum seekers and the other categories would be disingenuous.

3. The suggestion that the change in policy ‘follows an alarming rise in people abusing our modern slavery system by posing as victims in order to prevent their removal and enable them [to] stay in the country.’
This proposition is not supported by any evidence set out in the article. While the next paragraph does point to a doubling of claims in the period 2017-2020, it does not present any evidence to suggest that there has been a rise in failed or false claims. 

The only relevant measure presented in the press release is the proportion of claims in 2019 that were found to contain reasonable grounds for suspecting that trafficking had taken place. That figure, 89%, does not support the proposition that there has been an alarming rise in people abusing the system. It is not clear whether that proportion is more, less, or about the same as in previous years, but, whichever is the case, it suggests that the overwhelming majority of claims legitimately warranted further investigation.

The actual motive for the announcement would appear to be the assertion in the fifth paragraph that ‘Upcoming reforms to the asylum system are expected to lead to more serious criminals seeking to falsely take advantage of the National Referral Mechanism in order to frustrate their removal, making it harder for genuine victims to receive timely support.’

This in itself is problematic, because the impersonal construction ‘reforms… are expected to lead to…’ suggests an accepted, authoritative conclusion. In fact it is nothing of the sort. There is no such consensus. This particular misdirection could have been avoided by identifying the source of the ‘expectation’.

4. The first two paragraphs of the quotation from the Home Secretary
While it is part of the role of a Civil Service press office to convey the reasons for policy decisions and, in doing so, it is of course permissible to quote statements of reasons given by government ministers for those decisions, it is not part of its role to present those reasons as fact unless they are uncontroversial. While there is no reason to doubt that the Home Secretary did say those words, their quotation in the context of the same views being presented as established facts in the second paragraph of the press release lends them an appearance of factual authority which they do not merit.

These are opinions not facts and they are opinions which have nowhere been shown to be accurate.

The full text of the complaint can be accessed here.

Our response was covered in The Independent on 29 March 2021.

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