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In April, there was a piece in The Spectator by James Bartholomew about “virtue signalling”:

“Go to a branch of Whole Foods, the American-owned grocery shop, and you will see huge posters advertising Whole Foods, of course, but – more precisely – advertising how virtuous Whole Foods is. A big sign in the window shows a mother with a little child on her shoulders (aaaah!) and declares: ‘values matter.’

“The poster goes on to assert: ‘We are part of a growing consciousness that is bigger than food – one that champions what’s good.’ This is a particularly blatant example of the increasingly common phenomenon of ‘virtue signalling’ — indicating that you are kind, decent and virtuous.”

It is not just large organisations that do this. We can all join in. Twitter and Facebook are full of it. You don’t have to actually do anything. Virtue comes from words. To take a currently fashionable example, it is writing “Refugees Welcome” on a piece of paper and getting photographed holding it. However Bartholomew adds:

“It’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are. If you were frank and said, ‘I care about the environment more than most people do’ or ‘I care about the poor more than others’, your vanity and self-aggrandisement would be obvious.”

If we take a more old fashioned idea of virtue -  involving some effort or sacrifice on the part of an individual – then when it comes to helping refugees, a bit more detail is required than simply emoting about how caring we are. It would certainly include consideration of what, if anything, we could effectively do to help secure decent Governments in the countries refugees are escaping – principally Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan.

It would include consideration of not just how many refugees we take, but from where. That would mean taking them from the refugee camps rather than from those perilously arrived in Europe courtesy of people traffickers. There must be consideration for circumstances where Christians have been intimidated to leave the camps because of their faith. But broadly the approach of taking refugees from the camps makes sense.

As Daniel Hannan wrote on this site:

“One of the first acts of Tony Abbott’s government in Australia was to have illegal boats towed to an offshore centre, where migrants could make an asylum application. Those whose claims are rejected are free to return home, but not to enter Australia. Only one boat has reached that country illicitly since 2013; and not a single migrant has perished over that period.”

How many lives has Mr Abbott’s policy saved? We don’t know. But from 2008 to 2013 there were 877 asylum seekers who drowned heading for Australia. Since then none have. So that gives an indication that Mr Abbott has saved the lives of many asylum seekers – despite all the odium of the virtue signalling Twitterati.

I agree with the decision to accept another 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. That is a significant increase. Last year, the total number of asylum seekers in the UK was 25,0000 but 11,000 of them had their applications turned down and they had to leave to the last country they were in – not usually the country they were fleeing. This is not to suggest that the departure of those who have their claims rejected is necessarily smooth or rapid.

Of the applicants from Syria – 2,000 last year, 1,648 in 2013 – they were overwhelmingly allowed to stay. Within the migration totals, however, the numbers will still be small.

Nor should we assume that all refugees will be a burden, even in the short term. Often they don’t need the state to house them. They sometimes have family or friends already here that can accommodate them. Many Syrian refugees speak English, are well educated, and could support themselves from a very early stage. However the prevent rules prohibit them from working for 12 months. In Germany asylum seekers are allowed to work after three months. It strikes me as very foolish to have any restriction at all.

Furthermore many do need housing. The Home Office provides funds for local authorities to provide this via the National Asylum Support Service. There is also funding for the unaccompanied children to be placed in care.

Those who are granted asylum are entitled to Housing Benefit on the usual basis and so their rent – whether in council, housing association properties, hostels, or with private landlords – is paid via the Department for Work and Pensions. Or, of course, to support themselves by working. But those who have their applications refused but still here – around 10,000 at any given time – do remain here for too long. There are the endless delays with legal appeals. Speeding up that process would help the case for taking more genuine refugees.

Joe Anderson, the Mayor of Liverpool, says the council would offer to accommodate a hundred refugees.  Ah, but only if the Home Office coughs up the “necessary resources”.  Agreeing to help by finding the money within existing resources – perhaps from his £79,500 annual allowance – would be virtuous. Instead he provides “virtue signalling”.

Yvette Cooper says she would be happy to put up a refugee. Would she charge rent? Will George Ferguson, the Mayor of Bristol? Will Nicola Sturgeon’s offer to take a thousand more in Scotland come from the Scottish Government’s budget? Or does she expect English taxpayers to pick up the tab for her compassion?

These might seem rather vulgar details.   But it is important to distinguish between real compassion and generosity, and simple “virtue signalling”.

So far as the extra 20,000 refugees is concerned, there is a complication. They will come under the Syrian Vulnerable Peoples Relocation Scheme. They won’t actually be asylum seekers. This is the scheme under which 216 have already been let in – that caused the muddle with some people thinking this was the total number of all Syrian refugees that we had accepted. Those on this scheme have five years humanitarian protection status. Money from the Overseas Aid budget will go to councils for the expense involved.  Indeed while for asylum seekers, councils argue that their costs are not fully covered under this scheme, for the extra 20,000, it is accepted that their costs will be met in full.

I happen to think that councils should do more to help – for instance, to providing assistance in teaching refugees English where this is required. What is embarrassing is where you have councils – such as mine – doing diddly squat beyond issuing statements on their websites about how welcoming they are.

19 comments for: What should councils do in response to the refugee crisis?

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