Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

On Her Majesty’s Deceitful Service: The Woolas Case and the Ignoble Lies of the British State

The legal declaration that Phil Woolas knowingly lied and his election was void has reignited a debate on politics as a black art. Now it seems the dark spirit is animating government and official statements are not to be believed either.

I have been closely involved in the campaign to end child detention in Britain. One of the most disturbing aspects of the experience has been to witness government ministers making claims about the status of immigration detainees that they must know to be false. Claims which their civil servants must have helped to manufacture despite all the available evidence. On top of which, far from challenging what can become a cascade of dissimulation, most sections of the press and the broadcast media continue to report these official lies as if they were true.

So it is doubly welcome that the judiciary, at least, has found that a politician who in the process of winning a parliamentary seat by the narrowest of margins, knowingly lied about his opponent in an election campaign. As a result the judges have ordered the election to be re-held and banned the offending candidate from participating in elections for three years.

However, rather than raking over the coals of the Oldham East and Saddleworth election campaign, we should examine Phil Woolas’ record as Immigration Minister. The judgement should alert us to Woolas’ serial lying about asylum seekers as a Minister of State and his personal implication in what Nick Clegg rightly called ‘state sponsored cruelty’ towards detained children. So far this connection has failed to evoke a single reflection from the front, back or middle benches of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Neither did any of the major media coverage seem to consider that Woolas’ record as a minister might have a bearing on his conduct as a ‘stirrer up of white folk’ in Oldham, with the notable exception of Peter Oborne in the Telegraph. 

Woolas’ ‘disgraceful’ exclusion from the party by Deputy Leader Harriet Harman, we are told, has evoked the sympathy of numerous Labour backbenchers as well as the promise of financial backing from Cherie Blair and Gordon Brown. Harman has been invited to ‘examine her conscience’, while veteran Tory, Edward Leigh joining the fray, declared, ‘It is for the people to evict Members of Parliament, not the judges’. Meanwhile, in Comment is Free, Dan Hodges portrays the ex-MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth as a ‘fall guy’ who has been ritually sacrificed ‘to the conscience of the liberal left’.  ‘No one has fought longer and harder against racism and intolerance’, than Phil Woolas we are assured.

At the Bevins Prize presentation for investigative journalism, which was won by my fellow End Child Detention Now campaigner and OurKingdom contributor, Clare Sambrook, Andrew Marr told the audience that the ‘children of people who have come in completely as of right to seek asylum are incarcerated in a way that is utterly against all our best traditions’. The man behind the previous government’s odious policy of arresting and imprisoning many hundreds of children and babies was none other than Phil Woolas.  During Woolas’ stint at the Home Office, some 1,300 children were held in detention centres between July 2008 and September 2009 alone. In 2008, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons found that the average period of detention had almost doubled, while the Home Office’s own statistics showed that 29% of children were detained for more than a month on the personal authority of the Immigration Minister. This despite clinical evidence, as three Royal Colleges of Medicine have recently confirmed (Guardian Letters, November 10) that detention causes long term mental and physical harm to children.

Woolas sought to justify imprisoning kids on the grounds that it was the parents’ fault for ‘choosing’ detention over repatriation, since only families who had exhausted the appeal process and had no right to remain could be detained. In fact, as I pointed out in a Guardian comment earlier this year, a significant number of families have been detained prior to their cases being adjudicated under the ‘fast track’ system. Also, many of the children who spent time in detention were subsequently released and granted leave to remain.

Yet Woolas continued to repeat these misleading claims to Parliament and to the media as often as he could. In a word, he lied, but more seriously he lied as a Minister of the Crown and his Home Office civil servants, far from resigning or protesting, took pride in selling the ‘all detained families are illegal’ nonsense to an ever eager tabloid audience. Ed Miliband suddenly no longer has room for Woolas in his front bench team, but misleading the public on the issue of child detention has been no barrier to Woolas’s loyal deputy, Meg ‘we deport a failed asylum seeker every eight minutes’ Hillier or Alan ‘allowing asylum seekers to work is utter nonsense’ Johnson joining the ‘post New Labour’ cabinet.

The cynical and partisan reason for New Labour’s child detention policy was the perceived need for ‘a clear tough policy’ on immigration by using detention as a means of actively discouraging new asylum applications, thereby taking the immigration debate deep into ‘enemy territory’. Woolas told The Scotsman last year that it was ‘a horrible reality’ but unless failed asylum children were kept under lock and key, human trafficking and ‘dead bodies in lorries in Calais’ would be the result. The Home Office has never produced any credible evidence that the detention of families results in fewer unfounded asylum applications, but it serves the bogus ‘lesser of two evils’ agenda with which New Labour attempted to justify its inhumane treatment of defenceless children.

Jack Dromey and Harriet Harman may suit the role of the Shadow Cabinet’s Monsieur et Madame Defarge, but the new Labour leadership has so far shown no interest in ‘examining its conscience’ over the shameful imprisonment of thousands of traumatised children, or even bothering to say ‘sorry’ for one of the most disgraceful episodes in the party’s history, or for its policy of lying in office. And where are the protests from civil servants drafted in to knowingly mislead the public?

Phil Woolas is no longer an MP, but the bitter legacy of New Labour’s detention complex endures.  The government’s disgraceful announcement, sneaked out in a new prisons business plan (page 18, Milestone F for the curious), that the detention of children and families at Yarl’s Wood will continue until at least March of next year is a broken coalition government promise that will be paid for in the unnecessary suffering of potentially many more innocent children. 

We must do all we can to bring this scandal to an end – write to your MP, contact the press, mark the anniversary of Universal Children’s Day with local vigils (Links and further information are available on the End Child Detention Now website).

Let us ensure that the lesson we draw from the Woolas case is not simply to require greater honesty from parliamentary candidates, but that in the discharge of their public duties, no minister or civil servant should be permitted to abuse their power and privilege by obscuring or denying the truth.

About the author

Simon Parker is Senior Lecturer in Politics and Director of the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of York (UK) and lead investigator for the UK Economic and Social Research funded project: ‘Precarious Trajectories: Understanding the Human Cost of the Migrant Crisis in the Central Mediterranean’. In addition to the politics of asylum and migration his other research interests include urban studies and urban theory, socio-spatial informatics, and comparative European politics (with particular reference to Italy). Simon is a co-founder of Refugee Action York and the UK-based campaign group End Child Detention Now.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.