Ministers are to launch a new spin operation to market their immigration and asylum policies to a sceptical public, a leaked document reveals.
The Home Office plans to use advertising, public relations and the placement of “positive” news stories about migrants on the BBC and other broadcasters, according to the confidential report.
The move has already sparked a backlash from some senior civil servants who believe such an overtly political campaign could undermine the independence of Whitehall.
It was also seized on by the opposition this weekend as evidence of a potential abuse of public funds for party political purposes.
David Davis, the shadow home secretary, said: “The Home Office are treating the public like fools. They have to recognise they have a real problem over immigration, not a problem of perception and presentation. I would challenge any advertising they put out under such a scheme as a straight piece of political advertising.”
The 14-page strategy paper, entitled Home Office Marketing and Media Strategy, admits the public does not believe the government or official statistics on immigration and says the marketing campaign must “neutralise” asylum as an issue in the run-up to a possible general election next year.
The document concedes that people feel immigration is “out of control”, with public services being abused. It indicates that migrants’ access to good local schools or NHS dentists, already in short supply, could prove particularly damaging for the government.
The aim, it says, is to restore public confidence in the “competence and integrity” of the government. The new strategy includes:
· An advertising campaign rolled out from July to sell the message that managed migration benefits Britain.
· The recruitment and use of “third party endorsers” — supposedly independent people or groups who can be trusted publicly to back the government’s policies.
· “Rationalising” or reducing the number of published bulletins on immigration and population because “no one believes any of the [government's] statistics”.
· Placing stories with “human faces” in friendly media — items about real migrants that stress their positive impact on the economy.
The document acknowledges that the launch of a “managed migration information campaign” in July will be “denounced as ‘spin’ by the tabloids”. It singles out Express Newspapers, owned by Richard Desmond, who recently switched allegiance from Labour to the Tories, as beyond the pale.
It therefore proposes to focus on “broadcast and regional coverage using examples of the positive contribution of migrants”.
The paper talks about having “a single branded campaign” to highlight the message that migration is good and that controls do exist and can be effective. The paper gives an implied pat on the back to the BBC for its positive attitude to the subject.
Under the headlines “PR activity” and “Advocacy”, the document lists strategies including:
· Highlighting improvements being made to border security.
· Emphasising the presence of controls at ports and airports through signs and posters, and possibly “subject to cost” putting enforcement and port staff in new uniforms.
· Working with “influential opinion-formers” to improve their understanding of migration and, in some cases, to encourage “trusted voices” such as business leaders to speak in favour of immigration.
The document maps out how the Home Office wants to use a series of announcements in the next year to convince the public that the government is acting to combat illegal immigration.
In July it will launch a “refugee integration strategy” to help people settle in Britain and publish an updated handbook, Life in the UK. In August ministers will open a new detention centre for illegal immigrants at Heathrow airport. The paper notes: “Key message: expanding detention space to increase the number of removals.”
The paper warns of the risk that the government’s message is “consistently undermined by a series of population and migration publications and revisions” from the Office for National Statistics and proposes “rationalising” these publications.
It acknowledges, however, that “the argument won’t be won on numbers”. There must be a consistent message and “our solution is to take a marketing approach”.
This week, according to the paper, official figures will show the number of asylum applications is continuing to fall.
Asked how much public money the Home Office was to spend on promoting the positive aspects of its immigration and asylum policy, a spokeswoman said she could not give a specific figure: “The options are still being looked at.”
The paper was written by Home Office civil servants with input from David Blunkett’s special advisers — a clear indication that the home secretary is aware of the plans. It was drawn up amid the row that led to the resignation last month of Beverley Hughes, the immigration minister.
Whistle Blower Suspended in Immigrant Row