The government’s new Immigration Bill is all about UKIP. Westminster parties, led by the Tories, tremble at the thought of Nigel Farage and hope to peel away a few grubby votes by appealing to the worst instincts in society.
Yet, as I said on BBC London radio (Dotun Adebayo show) last evening (segment starts after 16 minutes) opinion polls show the public are not demanding more laws stripping rights away from asylum seekers. All they want is for the borders to be controlled. Theresa May’s Immigration Bill doesn’t deal with this area at all. She would rather kick a soft target and pander to prejudice than get her department operating efficiently.
My hope is the British public will reject such pernicious dog-whistling when they realise the Bill will consign the most vulnerable to the streets, denying them health care and housing and lead to ordinary citizens being routinely asked for their papers to prove they are not ‘illegal’.
Voters don’t want to see Britain become, in May’s words, a “hostile environment”. They simply just want ministers to do their job.
That is why I will be joining the Movement Against Xenophobia rally at the House of Commons this Wednesday (16th October) at 7pm, to hear Sarah Teather, Jeremy Corbyn, George Galloway and others and support a campaign to ditch this dangerous dogs dinner of a Bill.
Alex Massie, writing in The Spectator, hit the nail on the head:
“This immigration bill really is contemptible. Politics is often a question of signalling and what this bill signals, alas, is that the government prefers the presumption of guilt to the presumption of innocence.
“It is a bill that turns ordinary Britons into snitches for central government. A bill that will make life more inconvenient for millions of residents while, almost certainly, achieving few, if any of its aims. A bill, most of all, that sends a message that the United Kingdom is a bitter, paranoid, timorous, small-minded kind of country. The kind of country ruled by the kinds of people who spend their days leaving comments on newspaper websites.
“The bill also presents a picture of Britain under siege. A Britain in which dastardly foreigners are stealing your flat, your health care, your jobs and god knows what besides. A Britain, in other words, far removed from the decent, generally good-natured, easy-going and tolerant place that, most of the time and in most places, it really is.
“Again, restricting illegal immigration is one thing, even if this bill also encourages people to think there are millions and millions of illegal immigrants spongeing off your largesse (there are some, there are not millions).
“Treating legal immigrants as potential criminals and parasites is quite another. But that’s what this bill does. And, as I say, it does so with consequences for British-born citizens too since we will all be investigated or have to prove our identity more frequently as a result of this bill than would otherwise have been the case. Do not be surprised if landlords and doctors are disinclined to act as informers or agents of state surveillance. It is hard to see why they should be expected to behave in such a fashion.”
It’s not just the Spectator and UKIP who are appalled. Union leader Len McCluskey rightly described the Bill as “an affront to the British way of life”, adding: “We do not spy on our friends and neighbours on behalf of the state.”
The new Bill is the eighth dealing with asylum and immigration since 1997. On average that’s one new law every two years since Tony Blair first took office. Migrants and refugees are undoubtedly the most legislated-upon section of society in the past 16 years.
In that time people fleeing persecution, or simply trying to work hard to achieve their dream, have seen their fundamental human rights eroded. A Home Office culture of disbelief rejects many thousands of genuine claims from refugees. Families are thrown into detention centre prisons, bones broken during deportations and untold talent – ‘economic migrants’ in tabloid-speak – denied the right to settle.
Yet there is no reason to suppose the new Bill will be any more successful at fixing the problems that beset the system, only make it even more unfair and inhumane.
Aside from turning landlords and hospital nurses into immigration officials there is a very real danger that the Bill could get worse during its’ passage through parliament. Tory MPs successful in the private members ballot have submitted no less than eight private members Bills on asylum and immigration.
Measures including denying asylum seekers from claiming sanctuary in the first place if they have set foot in another safe country during their journey; shipping refugees out to the nearest ‘safe’ country to their land of origin; denying access to all public services; deporting all foreign nationals if they committed any offence like getting a parking ticket; removing the benefit safety net from all non-UK citizens; and further criminalising everyone who is an ‘irregular’ migrant (ie. unable to prove they are not when challenged) which suggests the police would be expected to arrest them.
Those private members Bills won’t become law there is every reason to believe the readings will be dress-rehearsals for those private members Bills morphing into amendments to the Government’s substantive Bill. The Tory direction of travel is clear.
Should such amendments be voted through it would turn the proposed Government legislation, described by Diane Abbott as “a nasty little Bill”, into something quite horrific.
The current Bill is bad enough. Forcing landlords to check on immigration status for fear of a £3,000 fine means that, at worst, they will be checking the status of every would-be tenant. Most likely landlords will end up racially-profiling those who ‘look like’ immigrants and perhaps denying tenancy based on appearance.
The measure certainly won’t stop unscrupulous ‘bed-in-a-shed’ landlords who are already outside the law. Legitimate landlords are ill-equipped to understand the wide variety of immigration statuses, from leave to remain to numerous categories of visas to people appealing decisions. They are not immigration officials. Some immigration lawyers can barely understand the complex system.
Faced with a plethora of papers and processes landlords may well turn people away even though they may have every right to that tenancy. In addition, it is hardly unusual for people not to have correct original documents in their possession anyway, especially when they are gathering dust in the Home Office.
The same applies to banks and the DVLA. Making it harder for already vulnerable, often distressed, people to access a roof over their heads and obtain a bank account puts them further outside society and is more likely to drive them underground where they face exploitation from the criminal fraternity which ministers say they also want to crack down on.
The £200 NHS surcharge on all visa visitors is an unnecessary tax at a rate far in excess of the health insurance Britons pay when visiting other countries. This would be imposed regardless of whether the person came within 200 yards of a hospital or GP’s surgery. Its something-for-nothing in reverse with the Treasury pocketing money specifically earmarked for healthcare which, in many cases, will not be needed or delivered.
There is already plenty of evidence to show that migrants already use the NHS far less than the resident population, not least because they are on average younger and fitter.
However when someone needs health care it should not be denied. The organisation Doctors of the World (DoW) have already reported GP’s turning away immigrants and asylum seekers even though, contrary to press reports, the Bill does not include doctors surgeries.
It is already causing confusion about eligibility, and will almost certainly lead to people with health conditions going untreated. DoW say there are already too many instances of foreign national women giving birth at home without any medical assistance which can only increase the rate of post-natal deaths.
Are we going to see overseas student doctors who have failed to pay the levy turfed out of the hospital they work in if they themselves fall ill? The Government is silent on how much temporary migrants actually cost the NHS, and with good reason. The New Statesman has shown that the maximum cost is 0.01% of the NHS budget in England but may be considerably lower given the arcane way figures are collected meaning Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationals could be counted as foreign.
The impression May wants to create, of rampant “health tourism” acting as a huge drain NHS resources, is manifestly a falsehood made worse when you consider that virtually every study (apart from MigrationWatch), including the Government’s own figures, show migrants contributing a net economic benefit after use of public services has been deducted. An OECD study earlier this year found that they make a net contribution of 1.02 per cent of GDP or £16.3bn to the UK per year.
Hospital admission rates for foreign-born people are around half that of English-born people of the same age and sex. Rates were most similar for obstetrics and neonatal care, but even then they were still lower for immigrant women of childbearing age than for similarly-aged English-born women.
In addition to the economic benefits of migration, Britain has only the tenth highest percentage of foreign-born residents in the EU so the ‘crowded island’ myth is more a reflection of an island mentality than the actual impact of migrants on British public services. And while migrants work mostly in lower wage occupations, they tend to have high labour force participation rates and employment rates.
It has already been illegal to employ anyone who doesn’t have permission to be here for the last 17 years so doubling the fine to £20,000 may seem superficially attractive in reality it will make no difference to the ‘black economy.’
However a combination of all the measures currently proposed in the Bill would not just create a “hostile environment” but also lead to more mental health problems and suicides. A failure of successive Governments to tackle the main issue, border controls, has led the present one to attempt to make life as unbearable as possible in the hope of driving them out. It is, in essence, a race to the bottom where, as Alex Massie says, we become a “bitter, paranoid, timorous, small-minded kind of country.”
It is evidently self-defeating to foster a climate where prospective employers do not want to ‘take the chance’ that the candidate may not have permission to work due to confusion surrounding the documents they carry, something that is already becoming a reality according to the Refugee Council.
The effect of May’s plans is also to erode the principle of universal rights where public services are an entitlement for all. The Home Secretary is not just playing divisive politics in creating fear and loathing towards foreigners but she is entrenching the position of around half a million people who are regarded as second class citizens, a slippery slope which, at its’ most extreme, has led to terrible consequences in mainland European history.
While there may be a small degree of abuse the fact remains that the vast majority of migrants do not come to Britain to visit a dentist. They come to work and provide for their families, or to seek refuge from persecution and do not deserve to be scapegoated in this way. There is a real risk of increased homelessness, including of families, and an upsurge in discrimination.
Eleven years ago May warned the Tories they would not win power if they carried the ‘nasty party’ image. Now they are in power it looks as though they are reverting to type. However for Lib Dems, the party to which I belong, we need to wake up and realise how illiberal this Bill really is.
Finger-printing and widespread immigration checks looks impossible to administer without revisiting ID cards, a Labour project Liberals fought very hard against. Under Labour the first group for whom ID cards were to be made compulsory were, after all, immigrants.
The Bill also fundamentally undermines Article 8 of European Convention of Human Rights and instructs the judiciary to “have regard for parliament’s view of public interest in immigration cases” rather than an independent legal view. It is a proposal that drives a dagger into EU human rights protection and all because May dislikes the extent that applicants win appeals, chiefly as a result of poor decision making by her department in the first place.
May also seeks to weaken the right to family life, which would cause more settled families to be split up unless they can prove a “substantial connection” to Britain, yet there is nothing in her Bill about regularising the status of children of migrants who are in no way responsible for their circumstances.
And the ‘deport first, appeal later’ clause might exorcise the memory of Abu Qatada but at the cost of much human suffering.
The Bill also opens the way for ordinary British citizens, especially those of colour, to be routinely asked for documentation to prove they are not immigrants or asylum seekers.
The Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association have said:
“What this means in practice is a system of identity checks for all, since it is necessary for British citizens or people with permanent residence to prove that they are lawfully present in the UK if and when checked. British citizens, European economic area nationals and third country nationals alike would be required to produce identity documents at many turns in a scheme that would be intrusive, bullying, ineffective and expensive and likely racist and unlawful to boot.”
ID checks – or even ID cards by the back door – and profiling and discrimination of British citizens are not what the Lib Dems signed up for in the coalition agreement.
There was no mention of an Immigration Bill in the agreement or the half-term review and, with the party still in the midst of an internal consultation on our own policies, it makes no sense to vote for such an illiberal piece of Tory legislation that may well be diametrically opposed to the policy Lib Dem members eventually end up agreeing.
Whatever the involvement of Tory backroom strategist Lynton Crosby, Britain must not replicate Australia’s hostility to immigrants or turn into an Italy. That the Bill was released one week after the Lampedusa disaster should give us pause for reflection. Making the lives of non-EU migrants and refugees as unpleasant as possible in a bid to sate public anxiety about EU migration is as vindictive as it is unnecessary.
Several Democratic House of Representatives were recently arrested during a sit-in in protest at an Immigration Bill going through the American legislature at the moment. The extent of public protest Stateside shows that the American people refuse to stand by while rights are taken away from one section of their society. We in Britain should follow their example and say “no, this Bill shall not pass.”
By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway