Tony Blair was interview by Andrew Rawnsley in Downing Street on Sunday 6 February 2005
This transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.
"BBC Radio 4's The Westminster Hour with Andrew Rawnsley" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.
Andrew Rawnsley: Prime Minister, after nearly eight years in power, you're announcing yet another attempt to deal with asylum and immigration. Does that mean you accept that many people in Britain, think that your government has lost control of the numbers of people coming in to this country.
Tony Blair: I don't think it's that, but I think that because of the nature of the world we live in to-day, you've got to keep going back to this issue, because the circumstances change. I mean if you take the first piece of legislation we passed on this, I think back in '98, that had an impact; if you then take the measures we, we did along the, the French border and eliminating the Sangatte camp, and you remember all those stories there used to be about people coming through the channel tunnel, we eliminated that. We've halved asylum claims, more than halved asylum claims in the last couple of years, but you've got to keep coming back to it, because there are new issues that arise.
Andrew Rawnsley: Well, one big concern among many voters is the people who apply for asylum, fail to get it and stay in Britain, never the less. The Conservatives say there are around a quarter of a million people in Britain who shouldn't be here. Do you accept that figure.
Tony Blair: No, I don't accept that figure.
Andrew Rawnsley: So what is the figure.
Tony Blair: But it's, but it's true
Andrew Rawnsley: Do you know what the figure is.
Tony Blair: There is a backlog of asylum claims and actually, when we came to power, the back log I think was over sixty thousand, it's now down significantly.
Andrew Rawnsley: How many people are in Britain illegally at the moment, as we speak tonight.
Tony Blair: Well, as we've always said, and indeed as I think Michael Howard said when he was Home Secretary several years ago, the fact is you can never be exactly sure because if they're illegal ...
Andrew Rawnsley: What's your guess.
Tony Blair: Oh, I don't think it's sensible to guess. But if you've got, if you've people who are here illegally, by their very nature, it is difficult to pin-point individual people. However ...
Andrew Rawnsley: (overlap) So you don't know is the answer. You don't know how many, even roughly, how many people are in Britain illegally at the moment.
Tony Blair: We've always been in the position where if people are here clandestinely or illegally, it's difficult to be precise about individual people because of the very nature of the case. However, having said that, what we can be sure of now is that the measures that we're taking on asylum, have reduced applications considerably, we'll reduce them still further, the additional measures that we announce, and the one thing for sure is the problem, which as you rightly identify is how you remove people, once their asylum claims have failed, the one thing that most certainly wouldn't work is the Conservative proposal, which is to find some foreign country unspecified, that all these claims are going to be processed in. Now since there is no foreign country as far as I'm aware that will take British asylum seekers and process their claims, the only alternative is to do what we're doing.
Andrew Rawnsley: Well let's talk about your record. If we look at the government's latest figures, in the third quarter of last year ten thousand applications for asylum were rejected but only three thousand people were removed. Now, is your new plan going to stop that happening. Are you going to remove people whose asylum claims have failed and been rejected.
Tony Blair: The frank answer is, it will improve it.
Andrew Rawnsley: But you won't manage to get, you won't manage to remove them.
Tony Blair: Well, I mean I've set a target already which is a so-called sort of tipping target, that we will get by the end of this year to the point where the number of removals is greater than the number of asylum applications. But let me just explain, because it's important people understand this, what the problem is. I mean, most people, the reason why people get angry about this is they say, look, if someone comes in and they claim asylum, and their claim is refused, why not simply remove them. And the answer to that is that you have to find a country that is willing to accept them as their own nationals. And the difficulty becomes how you then do that in circumstances where the person doesn't have documentation and then you have to go through a process of re-documenting them, with the country from which they're supposed to have come originally. Now, the reason why it has been so difficult to do this is because there aren't that many countries with whom we're able to get returns agreements that allow us to do this quickly. Now we're taking measures that will improve that situation but just so that you know, you put the three in, you know, three in ten figure is actually, I think it's roughly about five in ten ...
Andrew Rawnsley: (overlaps) You're saying that's good enough.
Tony Blair: No, I'm not saying it's good enough. I've just said to you we've got to improve it and do better. It's worth pointing out when we came to office, that the figure was more like one in ten.
Andrew Rawnsley: You see another thing, you talked about people being angry, I suspect one thing that makes people very angry is that they think they've heard promises from you before. Way back in 1997 you said you would, I quote you, clamp down on illegal immigration. In 1999, you were promising to make the asylum system, I quote you, fairer, faster and firmer, and in 2001 you were promising, I quote you again, that asylum seekers and their dependents, whose claims are rejected will be removed from Britain. Here we are in 2005 but the problem's still not fixed and you're making more promises. Won't people conclude that they've heard this all before from you.
Tony Blair: But the reason why it would be unfair to say that is that all the measures that we have taken, indeed have had an impact. When we came to office we had around about twenty months for the average asylum claim to be determined, it's now two months. We had, as I've just said to you, round about one in ten people being removed who are failed asylum seekers. We had a situation where the system was so clogged up with appeals, we literally couldn't get many of the cases heard properly, not for months and months, sometimes even years. All of those things have been changed. We've expanded detention space, we've, as I say, we've shut down what was the problem with people coming through the channel tunnel; so it's not to say look, the right way to put this Andrew is not to say nothing has happened, a lot has happened over the past seven or eight years. The sensible thing to understand however is that in the modern world, especially when you've got an economy where frankly there are lots of people who will come in and out every year, perfectly legitimately, is to make sure you continue to bear down on the abuses that come about.
Andrew Rawnsley: Well one of your ideas is that finger printing of everybody who gets a visa to come in to Britain, will eventually mean that you know who is coming in to the country, and you don't at the moment. That's supposed to be in place by 2008. Is this your promise - vote Labour and about three years time if all goes to plan, we will finally know, who's coming in to the country.
Tony Blair: Well we know when people come in to the country obviously, when they come in through the normal way and the normal system. The purpose of moving to a biometric visa is as the technology becomes available over time, you can use that as you can indeed with introducing identity cards, to make the system better. But you know, there's no point in having a debate between us, as if this was a simple thing. The fact of the matter is the public are worried about this. They're worried rightly, because there are abuses of the immigration and asylum system.
Andrew Rawnsley: And they're worried. You've had nearly eight years to do something about it and you haven't.
Tony Blair: Yes, but actually we have been doing a lot about it, however, as with virtually every country round the world, you have to keep coming back to the problem because there are what, seven and a half million people who visit this country every year. Three hundred thousand students who come to study. You've got roughly a hundred and fifty to two hundred thousand people who come in on work permits, all of this is perfectly legitimate, so what you've got to have is a set of rules that allow people to come in who the country needs, but have strict controls that actually work. What we don't need is to exploit the issue or pretend there is some simple magic bullet that can solve the problem because it, because it can't.
Andrew Rawnsley: You mentioned work permits. Let's turn to the question of people coming to Britain to work. At the moment, the net inflow of people in to Britain is about one hundred and forty to a hundred and fifty thousand people a year. Is that too high in your view.
Tony Blair: I don't think you should have an arbitrary figure. That's why I don't ...
Andrew Rawnsley: So you don't want to cut that number.
Tony Blair: I don't agree with the Conservative proposal for a quota. Whether we should cut the number or increase it, depends on the country's need. In other words, if for example there are people who are going to come in who can contribute to the British economy, which is why it's important we toughen up, and tighten up the system for work permits, then we should ... those people in.
Andrew Rawnsley: What does tighten up mean. A point system like the Tories are proposing.
Tony Blair: Well I think you'll have to wait for the proposals to come tomorrow but as we ...
Andrew Rawnsley: But you said the word toughening up. What's toughening up involve.
Tony Blair: Toughening up means you make absolutely clear that it's only people you really need to come in and work that get work permits. Now, to be fair, at the moment you'll only get a work permit by applying for it before hand and an employer has got to say, well I need this person to come in. But there are ways in which this system can be tightened up.
Andrew Rawnsley: So what's wrong with the current system.
Tony Blair: There are ways that it can be tightened up further because particularly, once you've got European Union accession of those countries from Eastern Europe, then it makes it I think sensible to look at ways we can tighten the system still further. In relation to students for example, you've got to, I mean again, students who come in to study in this country, come in, they bring an enormous benefit to this country. I mean we earn, I don't know, several billion pounds a year as a result of foreign students coming in. But you've got to make sure that the courses they're going to are proper accredited courses. So, again, there's a tightening up there that you can do.
Andrew Rawnsley: Just to get down to the bottom line though, the plans you're going to announce tomorrow, I know you don't want to pre-empt parliament by telling us in detail tonight what they are. But the plans you'll announce tomorrow, will reduce the number of economic migrants coming to Britain will they.
Tony Blair: No, that - the, the purpose like I've said to you, I don't think that you - that's the right question to pose. The question to pose is how do you get a system that makes sure that it's only people that Britain needs to come in.
Andrew Rawnsley: (overlaps) Right, so you think the current system is being abused.
Tony Blair: Look all the ...
Andrew Rawnsley: You wouldn't be changing it if you didn't would you.
Tony Blair: Look, all immigration systems round the world are subject to abuse. As I say, if you've got seven and a half million people coming in and out of your country, then you're going to have some people that abuse that system. The important thing however is to put in place strict controls, that work, that means that we have in (fluffs), genuine refugees. We have in people this country needs to work in our economy, but we tackle the abusers, but it should be dealt with responsively, not exploited.
Andrew Rawnsley: Now, according to your own government's figures, immigration has nearly tripled under your government. Can I suggest to you that one of your problems with this issue, one of the reasons it causes so much concern among so many voters is that people feel they were never asked whether they wanted this. You never said to them, vote Labour and you'll get a very big increase in immigration.
Tony Blair: But that's not what we've done. That's not been the purpose of the policies that we've pursued ...
Andrew Rawnsley: But it's a fact, immigration has nearly tripled under your government.
Tony Blair: No. No, hang on. That's, that's simply not right. If you're talking about the people who are coming in, yes it's true, we have had as the economy has strengthened, you've got very high levels of employment, you've got full employment in parts of the South. You've have more people in who, who work here. It's true also, more people come and study at British universities. These are good things for the British economy. You know we shouldn't - we shouldn't be either worried about it or wanting to prevent it. However, at the same time, with this government as with any government. With this country, as with any country, there will be abuses of the system; you have to deal with them. But you should deal with them but you should deal with them in a sensible way. And the dividing line between ourselves and the Conservatives will be very simple. We will be putting forward policies, that tackle the abuses, that have strict controls that work. We will not be making the problem worse as they would, either by halving the investment in the immigration service, which would be a disaster or pretending there is some simple easy way of processing Britain's asylum seekers in some other country, because no such other country exists.
Andrew Rawnsley: Thank you very much indeed.