Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ relies on collaborators – now is the time for opposition

From the NHS to homeless charities, the true extent of the government’s ‘border on every corner’ policy is now clearer than ever
In October 2013, then-Home Secretary Theresa May launched her flagship immigration bill. One of its key features was to require immigration checks to be carried out before anyone could open a new bank account, be issued with a driving licence or access routine health treatment. This would mean everybody, British nationals, EEA nationals and third country nationals alike, would have to produce identity documents to do so.

The bill also introduced a ‘deport first, appeal later’ policy for thousands facing removal from the UK, and reduced grounds for appeal. This was all part of a wider strategy to, in May’s own words, “create a really hostile environment for illegal migrants”.

In 2017, Theresa May’s premiership is hanging by a thread, but the ‘hostile environment’ she nurtured could continue to thrive if the opposition do not challenge it. The Conservative Party Manifesto 2017 announced its intention to “continue to bear down on immigration from outside the European Union” as well as reducing the number of people coming from the European Union. Labour has said that, unlike the Conservatives, it will not set itself unrealistic targets such as reducing immigration to the tens of thousands. But so far there has not been a great deal of discussion from either party on the more complex details of post-Brexit immigration policy.

The legislation which is currently driving May’s hostile approach is the 2016 Immigration Act. The Act gives immigration enforcement officers increased police-like powers, and has created more stringent requirements for employers, landlords and banks to check people’s immigration status. It is thus a criminal offence for a landlord to knowingly rent premises to an illegal migrant – if found guilty, the landlord could face up to five years in prison. Similarly, employers who hire illegal migrants and the workers themselves could face criminal sanctions.

In this respect it creates incentives for British citizens to report migrants to the government. And herein lies a significant factor fuelling the ‘hostile environment’: collaboration.

This was picked up on by the Labour Party in its 2017 Manifesto. In the ‘Border Security’ section, it argues that the Conservatives “want to turn private sector landlords, teachers, medical staff and other public-sector workers into unpaid immigration officers, forcing them to provide information to the authorities.” But this is not just a possible future scenario; it is already a reality.

There have been several exposés recently which have revealed that supposedly independent and confidential organisations have been working with the Home Office to gather incriminating evidence on potential immigration offenders which, in some cases, has led to deportation.

In January 2017 it was made public that the Home Office had obtained the personal data of thousands of NHS patients as part of its crackdown on illegal immigration. In this shocking news, the Guardian reported that the number of requests from the Home Office for patient data of suspected immigration offenders had increased threefold since 2014. Whilst medical records are protected by data protection laws, the Home Office has made use of a little-noted exemption in the rules to access patients’ non-clinical records, without any need for a court order.

Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott labelled this “unacceptable”, adding that “We have already seen this Government using schools to gather immigration data on children. Now we find they are using the NHS in the same way”.

Indeed, the government has implemented a toxic ‘border on every corner’ policy, whereby a wider set of organisations are being required to report to the Home Office. Where the 2016 Immigration Act enlisted employers and landlords as essentially its second-tier immigration force, now this is being extended to public services such as the NHS.

Considering the cuts to border security under Theresa May’s watch, perhaps it is unsurprising that the government is forcing other agencies to ‘fill in’ by undertaking the role of immigration officers.

Even the Third Sector has been implicated, as news has spread that homeless charities, such as St Mungo’s, have been reporting rough-sleeping undocumented migrants to the Home Office.

This was revealed in some detail by Corporate Watch, who recently launched a report highlighting its concerns about the links between homeless charities and immigration enforcement. The purpose of these charities is to help vulnerable people; instead, through a creeping set of changes, they are becoming informers.

Charity bosses claim that their aim is to help non-UK rough sleepers to leave “voluntarily”, but the FOI figures show that detention and enforced deportation are more common, and so-called “voluntary” departures are carried out under the threat of force.

Theresa May was not granted the ‘blank cheque’ that she was seeking in the snap General Election, and is clinging to power by the skin of her teeth. She must be prevented from acting on the draconian immigration policies outlined in the Tory manifesto. With the new parliamentary arithmetic, Labour also has an opportunity to challenge the worst excesses of the current system. Now is the time to do so, and to ensure that our streets, our charities, our schools, and NHS, are no longer used to enforce an illiberal agenda.
Cara Priestley is a Campaign Volunteer with the Labour Campaign for Human Rights

LCHR’s Response to the Government’s Policy Paper on Citizens’ Rights

Last week saw the first government pronouncement on the impact of Brexit upon citizens’ rights after a year defined by uncertainty for the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK and 1.2 million expats living in Europe. Yet despite the titular promise to finally “safeguard” the rights of these citizens, the proposal falls short in many crucial areas – creating a credibility gap that Labour must be prepared to fill.

The proposed “settled status” system was met with disappointment from negotiators, campaigners and citizens alike, with Michel Barnier calling for “more ambition, clarity and guarantees.” As well as making the cut-off date up for debate, the key difference is that whilst the EU wishes to guarantee the exact continuation of rights for UK citizens, the UK demands the incorporation of both groups into the framework of British law. This would result in a reduction of current rights, such as freedom of movement and the ability to emigrate with a family member.

The decision to intentionally begin negotiations with a proposal significantly under the EU’s offer is guaranteed to extend the protracted anxiety of millions. The fact that those who are most affected could not vote for Brexit, and that 77% of leave voters supported letting EU migrants stay, means that ensuring continued residence is a matter of moral urgency. Gambling with the lives of those who have most to lose from the negotiations is as needless as it is damaging.

Much of the outcry has centred around the proposals’ lack of “detail and clarity” regarding exactly how rights would be protected. The government document is littered with vague language prefixing essential rights, such as the hazy promise to “seek to protect” healthcare rights. It is unclear why the government would wish to leave themselves such legal wriggle room in their “serious and generous offer” to secure the rights of 4 million individuals.

The proposal does have some welcome elements, particularly the commitment to drop the requirement for comprehensive sickness insurance and the indication that applying for settled status will be as “light touch” as possible.

However, this will only form the tip of the bureaucratic mountain of immigration protocol that the Brexit select committee recently labelled as “disproportionately burdensome.” The government must expand on this commitment if they are to shake off the suspicion that their immigration system is designed to deter, rather than to control.

Much of the impasse stems from the mistrust with which Europe sees the UK’s immigration system, which is hardly unwarranted given Theresa May’s creation of a “hostile environment” as Home Secretary, and her government’s pointless, divisive drive towards reducing immigration to the “tens of thousands”. The UK’s particularly harsh spousal migration policy has been at the centre of disputes, as it provides a tangible example of how British law would reduce the rights of EU and UK citizens living abroad.

Following the government’s proposal, Labour has a clear opportunity to become the party of a logical and humane Brexit.

To ensure this, Labour must continue its year-long campaign to unilaterally guarantee the exact continuation of rights for EU citizens, a stance that has been vindicated by the EU’s mirror offer for UK citizens.

Where the government seeks to hide behind technicalities and vague language, Labour must be unequivocal and robust in its assurances of citizens’ rights.

Above all, Labour must escalate its brave commitment to sweeping immigration reform that saw the manifesto promise to scrap the aforementioned spousal migration threshold. By recognising that we are at a moment of national reflection, Labour can maximise its newfound position of strength to push for an immigration system that is universally fit for purpose in a post-Brexit world.

Joe Duffy is the Campaign Intern for the Labour Campaign for Human Rights. 

This article was written as part of our dedicated Brexit and Human Rights Campaign.

Briefing on Ending Indefinite Detention in the Asylum System.

The UK is among the few nations in Europe to not have a limit on the amount of time an asylum seeker can spend in a detention facility. Our latest briefing argues that this policy is ineffectual, costly, and injurious to the mental health of detainees, and explores ways in which Labour can ensure that asylum seekers are treated humanely and with dignity.

Read it here.

Citizens’ Rights and Family Immigration: How the EU negotiations demonstrate the flaws in Britain’s family immigration system.

As we pass the anniversary of the Brexit referendum, this whirlwind year has perhaps been hardest on those whose freedom to stay in their country of residence remains unresolved. The lives, security and futures of the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK, and the 1.2 million British expats living in the EU, have been reduced to one of the “main cards” that the government have regularly implied they are willing to trade away. Theresa May’s decision to begin the negotiations on citizens’ rights with an offer significantly below the EU’s demands is sure to prolong the anxiety of millions.

Yet there is one area in which EU citizens may have a post-Brexit advantage.

In 2012, the then Home Secretary Theresa May introduced a law demanding that any British citizen with a spouse from outside the EU must earn an annual income of £18,600 or above (or £22,400 when including a child) before their partner can come to live with them. It is estimated that the threshold excludes 41% of the British working population whilst disproportionately penalising women. This places an unjust means-test upon the ability to live with loved ones, and implies that the right to a family life is only available to those who can afford it.

A curious effect of the minimum income requirement is that it makes it comparatively easier for EU citizens to bring non-EU family to live with them. In an ongoing court case, an EU legal advisor stated that the Algerian husband of a woman with dual Spanish-British citizenship had the right to join her in the U.K, due to EU rights that protected her prior to her British citizenship. The EU negotiating team have separately demanded that these rights apply to “current and future family members”, even after the divorce or death of the initial right-holder.

It therefore possible that, decades down the line, a descendant from an EU citizen living in the UK could have the truly global access to family life that is denied to the children and grandchildren of non-EU citizens.

Although this is unlikely, the crucial point is that the current dispute over EU citizenship rights has reflected how the failures within our immigration system affect everyone living in Britain.

On Friday the Prime Minister argued that she wanted EU citizens to have the same post-Brexit rights as UK residents, but without the jurisdiction of European courts they would likely be subject to minimum income requirements. When a guarantee of rights has the effect of increasing the number of people at risk of being unjustly denied a life with their family, it is clear that the entire system urgently needs reform.

Labour have repeatedly, and rightly, pledged to unilaterally guarantee the exact continuation of citizenship rights for EU citizens. The manifesto promised to replace income thresholds entirely. This is a very welcome stance.

But can Labour, and all progressives, learn from the protracted ordeal of EU citizens and demand the further reform that is required to place human rights at the centre of our immigration system? Minimum income requirements are just one aspect of the ‘hostile environment’ which Theresa May intentionally created as Home Secretary. If the election taught the left one thing, it is to think big and unapologetically about key issues. The example of EU citizenship rights shows that this approach is desperately needed in order for all British people to have equal access to a family life.

Joe Duffy is the Campaign Intern for the Labour Campaign for Human Rights

This article was written as part of our dedicated Brexit and Human Rights Campaign.

Brexit & human rights project

Today, as the government begins Brexit negotiations with the European Union, LCHR embarks on a new project, ‘Brexit & human rights’, a year-long policy and advocacy project which will run from June 2017 to June 2018. Our aim is to influence Brexit and post-Brexit policy in Labour and progressive circles, in order to make it compatible with human rights. You can see more about the project on our dedicated website, here.

With the assistance of a group of expert advisors, and with input from all the different constituent parts of the Labour movement, LCHR will examine the challenges and opportunities that Brexit poses for human rights in the UK. We will invite submissions from MPs, trade unions, civil society, Labour CLPs and members, and like-minded political parties, and holding high-level workshops focusing on the key issues. We will produce policy analysis and ideas to help inform the Labour Party and other progressive parties on how to ensure human rights are protected during and after Brexit.

The five key issues we are focusing on are:

  • Citizens’ rights, such as the residency rights of EU nationals living in the UK.
  • The immigration system after Brexit.
  • Human rights in post-Brexit trade deals.
  • Equality and employment rights.
  • Hate crimes and xenophobia.

Those on LCHR’s mailing list will get automatic monthly updates on the project within our regular newsletter, but if you’d like to sign up for separate updates you can do so here.

The husbands and wives depending on a Labour election victory

On the eve of this election, there are thousands of married couples whose futures hang in the balance. The result will likely determine whether or not they can live with their husband or their wife, or whether they will continue to be separated under the UK’s unfair visa regime.

In 2012, the Home Office – under Theresa May’s leadership – implemented new minimum income requirements for non-EEA applicants for spousal visas. They are so high that the UK now scores at the bottom of the league tables for ease of family reunion. To bring a spouse (or indeed an unmarried partner) to the UK, not including application costs, requires £18,600 annual gross income, which increases by the thousands if there are children too.

But, if the Conservatives win, things are set to get even worse. The Tories have pledged to hike the minimum income requirement for spousal visas even higher. Their pledge comes as settlement visa fees have also recently been increased from £1,195 to £1,464, and charges increased for even the most basic immigration services. It’s now going to cost £5.48 to send a single email to the UK Visas and Immigration service to get information for an application.

Some families had hope earlier this year when the Supreme Court was set to make a ruling on the legality of the minimum income requirement. But in February the Court upheld the income requirement, despite the hardship it causes to already vulnerable families, though it did urge more relaxed policies regarding alternative sources of funding as well as expanding the purview of immigration officers, empowering them to make decisions in full compliance with the Human Rights Act of 1998.

Now that the Court has validated the draconian immigration policies of the Conservatives, as we edge closer and closer to the UK’s departure from the EU, it is up to progressives to alleviate the burdens unfairly shouldered by Britain’s immigrant population. In its manifesto, Labour has bravely and rightly pledged to scrap the minimum income requirement altogether.

It’s not hard to see why. A minimum wage earner in the UK makes barely £13,000 annually, so for the threshold to be set so high and only taking into account the sponsor’s income is a grossly unjust policy. Its justification under May’s leadership is shrouded in what appears at first to be neutral economic arguments. But looking at the broader trajectory of the Conservatives’ policy undertakings, it is clear that these severe requirements are simply intended to squeeze immigration numbers as much as possible.

One of the appellants to the Supreme Court case, called MM, makes just over £15,000 in the UK, and his wife in Lebanon speaks fluent English, has a BSc in nutrition, and works as a pharmacist. Her job prospects in the UK are optimistic, and she would have little trouble integrating. However, they have not made an application for her settlement because of the high application fees and the likelihood of their rejection by the Home Office.

Theresa May and the Conservatives, as we approach the election, seem eager to crack down on all foreigners, including EU citizens, living in the UK who hope to bring their partners and children here to live. The Tories’ targeting of families is especially unfair as effective political mobilization is difficult when families are fragmented, earning low-wages, working multiple jobs, or caring for children.

Those committed to the protection of families must be the vanguard of the opposition to the Conservatives’ unjust immigration policies. It’s ironic that it should be the Labour Party emerging in this election as the champion of marriage and family values – principles that the Tories seem to have abandoned. To all those couples anxiously awaiting the election result, we send our solidarity. Progressives, in the wake of a tumultuous global election season, find themselves with many fronts to fight. But tackling these unfair rules is a cause we shall continue to fight for, whatever the election outcome.

Elise Francis is a Campaign Volunteer with the Labour Campaign for Human Rights