This week is has been the virtual Conservative Party Conference. Like so much of what our virtual government says, it is virtually nothing to do with reality.
The government are failing. This week’s failure was thanks to a file of 16,000 positive Covid-19 test results that failed to send ("dog ate my homework"). It seems in a virtual world those tests failed to land and who knows if they were traced or what happened.
Then we had our prime minister, Boris Johnson, taking to the airwaves to make mistake after mistake – highlighting that he has virtually no idea of exactly what the rules he is asking us to live by are.
The failures are all bad in and of themselves, but government missteps lead to a further downside for the rest of us. When ministers are backed into a corner, the government goes back to what it knows best – seeking to divide us and to go tough on immigration.
However, they are just using tough words to cover up their own massive problems in the field.
Take a deep breath and bear with me. The home secretary, Priti Patel, is absolutely right that there is a sickening trade in the trafficking of vulnerable people across the channel from Europe. She is also right that there needs to be a fair system for those who come through legal roots.
How exactly the home secretary manages to blame the mess that they have made of the system after a decade in power, on lefty lawyers and “do-gooders” (as if doing good is a bad thing), is less clear. It is a lie.
Someone should explain to her that the Conservative Party have been in power for more than 10 years. Perhaps if the Home Office had spent less time coming up with madcap plans to put vulnerable people on a Napoleonic island fort, or, I don’t know, appallingly deporting British Windrush citizens, it could have focused its attention on the problem it now wants to blame everyone else for.
The home secretary seemed to want to talk about fair legal routes. However her government (and no doubt her PM chief among its cheerleaders) have at every single stage tried to resist and shut down safe legal routes; for example, the family reunification of unaccompanied child refugees.
The desperation of such cases can’t be under emphasised - some of these children have seen family members murdered in front of them. But the government have shut down some of the legal pathways to safety for these kids. While the cross-party Foreign Affairs Select Committee warned that this risked resulting in more people risking their lives taking to incredibly dangerous Channel crossing.
I fear that the home secretary may have taken her own personal virtual reality too far during her speech. “Those defending the broken system are the traffickers, the do-gooders, the lefty lawyers, the Labour Party,” she said. No one is defending this broken system at all, and I spend a huge amount of my time complaining about what utter rubbish the current system is. Once again, I reiterate the Conservatives has been in government - in charge - for a decade.
I get what she is trying to do; make it seem as if someone else is responsible for the borders. I guess the government had enough of failing this week, so had a quick look around for someone to have a pop at. However, I balk at her putting me in the same category as “traffickers”.
Unlike the home secretary – I spent years setting up services for victims of trafficking and modern slavery. I worked with local police to help convict traffickers and supported hundreds of people who had been sold for sex, cheap labour, organs and fertility. If Patel wants to go toe-to-toe on stopping trafficking, I will gladly step up.
Her tough talk about tackling modern slavery simply does not equate to action in reality. Take, for example, the growing number of children currently being referred into the Home Office National Referral Mechanism for Modern Slavery. A total of 4,550 children were identified by UK authorities as potential victims of trafficking and exploitation in 2019, up from 3,137 in 2018. Of those currently being referred, the mahority are British children groomed for sex, drugs and organised crime.
In 2016 the government committed to supporting these children with Independent Child Trafficking Guardians. However, four years later, in most parts of the country this service and support is not in place and there doesn’t seem to be a clear plan for when it will be. As always, action seems to be too slow, patchy and piecemeal.
My husband actually works for a virtual reality company. With a headset, he can transport me to an escape in the foothills of the Andes, all while I am actually in my kitchen among the dirty washing up. If the home secretary were to take off her own headset, she’d find that it isn’t the ‘do-gooders’ who have caused these problems or failed to come up with solutions.
I think she’d have to look a little closer, at the Home Office, to find the culprits. Sometimes you want to imagine you are somewhere better; but in reality, if you use the plates, you need to wash them up.
Jess Phillips is the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley