By Rachel Robinson
A week after the home secretary told the Conservative party conference that the rate of UK immigration was damaging social cohesion, MPs will today consider a package of proposals so clumsy, counter-productive and divisive that they risk tearing it to shreds.
The government has couched its noxious new immigration bill in terms of “tackling exploitation” and “protecting public services”. In fact, if implemented, its effect will be to facilitate discrimination, encourage aggressive enforcement and fundamentally damage race relations.
The bill will certainly create the “hostile environment” the government craves – but this will extend well beyond its headline-friendly targets of migrants to infringe on everyone’s civil liberties, with ethnic minorities and those with foreign-sounding names or accents hardest hit.
The bill escalates obligations on landlords to check the immigration status of tenants, amending the scheme to include criminal sanctions and summary eviction. During the passage of the Immigration Act 2014, the “right to rent” scheme caused significant concern among parliamentarians, who demanded a clear, thorough impact assessment following its regional pilot.
That pilot took place between December 2014 and May 2015. The promised evaluation has yet to materialise. This notwithstanding, in May the prime minister pledged to roll it out nationally. Perhaps the government doesn’t take discrimination in housing provision seriously – or could it be it has something to hide?
The evidence we do have – from an independent evaluation by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) - shows clear and damning evidence of discrimination. Forty-two per cent of landlords said “right to rent” had made them less likely to consider somebody who doesn't have a British passport, 27 per cent were reluctant to engage with those with foreign accents or names and more than three quarters were not in favour of a national roll-out. Government data obtained by JCWI also revealed pitiful enforcement gains.
The government ploughs on regardless. While enforcement impacts are likely to be underwhelming or non-existent, the implications on race relations are all too real – the draconian amendments in this bill will make our country a less friendly place to be for anyone who doesn’t look or sound British.
Among a catalogue of new powers granted to immigration officers – relaxed thresholds for entry, the ability to close premises and businesses, gather evidence and arrest without warrant – most eye-catching is the new offence of “driving whilst illegal”.
Police, controversially, already have the power to stop vehicles without reason. The home secretary’s own review into use of that power suggested black and minority ethnic drivers were more likely to be stopped, more likely to not be provided with a reason for the stop, and more likely to have their vehicle searched, but less likely to be arrested or prosecuted – suggesting they are also more likely to be stopped without reason.
The additional powers in the bill will encourage routine traffic stop operations, affecting all drivers, but in particular those from minority ethnic groups – potentially greatly exacerbating the reality and perception of discrimination.
In his 2008 foreword to a Centre for Social Justice report, Iain Duncan Smith wrote:
“It also appears that a British government is using forced destitution as a means of encouraging people to leave voluntarily. It is a failed policy: only one in five leaves voluntarily. This contrasts diametrically with Sweden, where, this year, only one in five had to be forced to leave. The rest did so voluntarily. Sweden achieves this by treating refused asylum seekers in a humane and reasonable manner.”
His words neatly capture just how little regard the government has paid to humanity, reason or cold, hard evidence when drafting this bill. At its heart is a raft of proposals calculated to make life unliveable for irregular migrants, ostensibly in a bid to encourage them to leave and deter others – powers to seize earnings, criminalise working, freeze and close bank accounts and diminish asylum support.
The bill creates a stand-alone illegal working offence, with a maximum penalty of a 51-week prison sentence and a fine. The government claims to be committed to tackling slavery, trafficking and exploitation – but Focus on Labour Exploitation believes these proposals will create further vulnerability, marginalisation and fear: the perfect conditions for the exploitation of migrant workers to thrive.
For abusive employers already willing to risk an undocumented workforce, criminalising the worker plays straight into their hands. The worst employers will increasingly become the only port of call for the desperate, fuelling an underground labour market characterised by exploitation and abuse.
In its frantic bid to introduce ever more severe and biting hardships, the government is even willing to overlook the rights of children and see them left without basic necessities. The bill seeks to remove mainstream asylum support from many families with small children, leaving them vulnerable to destitution – an approach that demonstrates a callousness which is increasingly coming to characterise UK immigration and asylum policy.
In placing this spiteful and schismatic bill before the House, the government has squandered an important opportunity: to engage with well-established concerns about notoriously poor Home Office decision-making, record-keeping and intelligence-gathering; to prioritise investment in well-planned and implemented programmes to encourage voluntary departure.
It also fails to address one of the greatest stains on our country’s human rights records in decades – the use of limitless detention unashamedly for administrative convenience. Despite growing cross-party consensus that a time limit on immigration detention is urgently needed, no such provision is included. This bill is an opportunity to end this gravest of injustices.
The immigration bill, if passed, will fail in the government’s expressed intention – to deter irregular migrants. Instead, it will foster suspicion, undermine social cohesion and – through a regime of regular and routine identity checking – lead to injustice, discrimination and threats to our basic rights and freedoms. Against this dark backdrop, Theresa May’s climactic words in her much-maligned speech, “let Britain be a beacon of hope”, don’t just ring hollow – they sound like a distasteful joke.
Rachel Robinson is the policy officer for Liberty.
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