Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

Demelza Jones

In an interview on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show this week, the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, announced that he would be ‘taking a fresh look’ at the UK government’s approach to controlling immigration. This change responds, in part, to outcry at the wrongful identification of the children of Windrush-era migrants as illegal immigrants; with Javid’s predecessor at the Home Office, Amber Rudd, forced to resign in April after failing to adequately explain her knowledge of and role in this scandal.

First among Javid’s reforms it seems, is a rebranding exercise; with hostile environment rhetorically softened to ‘compliant environment’. In more concrete terms, Javid indicated that the cap on visas for skilled migrants, introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010-2015 as part of a suite of policies intended to substantially reduce net migration, would be lifted – in part in response to NHS complaints that the cap was exacerbating staff shortages. The BMJ for example, reported in May 2018:

More than 1500 visa applications from doctors with job offers in the UK were refused between December 2017 and March 2018 as a result of the Home Office’s cap on the number of tier 2 visas it issues to workers from outside the European Economic Area.

The Minister also promised Marr that he would be ‘looking again’ at the inclusion of international students in net migration figures – a move that will be welcomed by both Conservative Party colleagues and Universities UK who have called for policy change on this since 2014. In addition, and in direct response to the Windrush scandal, Javid has halted the requirement for banks and building societies to suspend the accounts of suspected illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, the government last month accepted an amendment to the Data Protection Bill tabled by Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, which ends the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in place since the 2012 Health and Social Care Bill between NHS Digital and the Home Office. Under the MoU, patient data was shared for immigration enforcement purposes – a system which, in the view of many healthcare professionals, undermined fundamental principles of the carer-patient relationship and deterred those with precarious immigration statuses from accessing essential healthcare services, and which had been vigorously opposed on these grounds by third sector organisations and campaign groups (including the profession-led Docs Not Cops). The power of civil society initiatives to affect social change is also shown by the recent successful campaign led by Schools ABC [Against Borders for Children] to limit data sharing between the Department of Education and the Home Office.

Taken together, all of this might suggest that the hostile environment is a slowly crumbling edifice – this is a mistaken assumption. The hostile environment is deeply ingrained in the functioning of a range of institutions, and arguably has been for almost two decades with no end in sight. As anyone who has sought asylum in the UK or has worked with people seeking asylum will attest, as Home Secretary, Theresa May may have named the hostile environment and extended its legislative reach, but she did not invent it. As Alice Bloch and Liza Schuster explore in a 2005 article, New Labour’s election to government in 1997 coincided with a need for policy responses to increasing numbers of asylum seekers entering the UK. These responses were largely punitive in nature; increasing surveillance of asylum seekers and tightening previous policies of John Major’s Conservative government which had limited asylum seekers’ access to the labour market and welfare benefits in order to ‘discourage’ their arrival. I volunteered and worked for a refugee and asylum support organisation in the mid-2000s, and saw on a daily basis the institutional, bureaucratic and policy practices which made life needlessly (and, it seemed, maliciously) difficult for those trying their hardest to follow the Home Office’s rules. This ranged from the everyday indignity of having to pay for shopping with vouchers rather than cash, forcing people to rely on charity for items deemed ‘non-essential’; to dispersal to an unknown town or city, which had the effect of breaking precious social networks; to the visceral dread of detention and deportation. Another ‘everyday’ example comes from Lucy Mayblin, now an academic at the University of Warwick, who recently wrote on Twitter about her experiences volunteering for the Refugee Council in 2008/9:

NASS [National Asylum Support Service] or [the] Home Office would change their phone numbers every few weeks so asylum seekers and charities supporting them couldn’t get through to sort out problems and get info on cases … Then someone would somehow get some of the new numbers and they would be passed around the office on scraps of paper. Then a few weeks later the numbers no longer worked … [I] learnt a lot about the calculated inhumanity of the hostile environment through that job.

This ‘calculated inhumanity’ towards people seeking asylum (and others with precarious immigration statuses) has continued under the subsequent Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010-2015 and majority and minority Conservative governments since 2015. Today, for example, the UK continues to operate as the only EU country without a statutory time limit on immigration detention and has amongst the largest immigration detention estates in Europe. Few voices from the ruling political parties have spoken against these dehumanising policies, and media coverage of asylum (and immigration more generally) continues to be overwhelmingly hostile in tone. Arguably, the hostile environment for people seeking asylum since the 1990s created an enabling environment within which the reforms legislated in the 2014 Immigration Act (and which have had such devastating impacts on the lives of those caught up in the Windrush scandal) were allowed to pass through parliament largely uncontested – with only 16 MPs voting against them.

Writing in 2003 on UK immigration policy, Liza Schuster argues:

For many, and obviously for the governments that have introduced them, dispersal, detention and deportation are both rational and proportionate measures, necessary instruments in pursuit of a government’s responsibility to maintain the integrity of its borders … However, these measures only seem reasonable until one imagines using them against one’s own population.

This is a prescient observation in relation to the Windrush scandal, which may be seen as a ‘stress test’ of the hostile environment. The test was resolutely failed, as daily media coverage of people who had lived in Britain since childhood being denied NHS treatment for life-threatening conditions; losing their jobs, housing, driving licence and benefits; and being held in detention centres and deported, sparked political and public outrage, resulting, rightly, in changes to policy.

But aside from these limited measures, significant components of the hostile environment remain in place, and are even strengthened by recent legislation. As Peter Pannier, a member of Docs Not Cops writes, while the aforementioned suspension of the MoU between the NHS and the Home Office is welcome, patients are still required to prove their immigration status to access hospital care (the focus of an ongoing #patientsnotpassports campaign) – meaning that people will continue to suffer rather than drawing attention to their status by visiting a doctor, and that Albert Thompson will not be the last unfortunate individual denied treatment as their paperwork does not match their own understanding that they are British. In the same parliamentary debate in which the amendment to remove the MoU passed, another amendment to remove the exemption that allows data protection rules to be broken for immigration enforcement purposes was narrowly defeated, with groups such as Liberty arguing that the government’s intentions around how this exemption will be used are ‘worryingly vague’. The incursion of borders into a myriad of spaces also continues, with public library workers the latest group of professionals engaging in a campaign against the ‘bordering’ of their workplaces through opposition to an agreement between the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) and UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) under which frontline staff in public libraries will ‘support applicants for in-country visas on behalf of UKVI’. While the initiative is badged by SCL as ‘digital inclusion’, campaigners highlight (amongst other concerns) the risk that ‘library workers [may be] seen as agents of the application process rather than offering independent help and support, thereby undermining the crucial role of libraries as trusted spaces for all’.

Aside from the continuing practice of hostile environment policies outlined above, Javid’s framing of his proposed review of the policy (in the Marr interview and elsewhere) is also telling, focusing as it does on a desire to refine the implementation of the hostile/‘compliant’ environment rather than revising it completely. The fault, Javid argues, is not with the policy per se, but with its blunt application to the ‘wrong’ group of people. This construction of those affected by the Windrush scandal as ‘good’ migrants was prevalent in much of the political and media discourse surrounding the issue – much was made for example, of their status as ‘hardworking taxpayers’, while their parents’ role in the origin myth of modern, multicultural Britain was also accentuated in many accounts. The solidarity expressed from numerous quarters with those affected by the Windrush scandal can seem heart-warming amongst a relentless stream of anti-immigration rhetoric. But as Luke de Norohna, who researches deportations from the UK to Jamaica, powerfully highlights:

we should be cautious … in celebrating this apparent change in public mood. In fact, what we are witnessing is the re-drawing of the line separating those who belong from those who do not: ‘Windrush migrants’ are brought into the fold of the national ‘we’, while ‘illegal immigrants’ are constructed as manifest outsiders.

The starkness of this distinction even within the category of ‘Windrush migrants’ can be observed in Javid’s response to Marr’s questioning about the 63 people believed to have been wrongfully deported from the UK as part of the Windrush scandal. Javid admitted that the government had only managed to contact seven of these people so far, but that he had ‘no interest’ in contacting 32 of them who had been labelled as foreign national offenders as ‘I don’t want them back in our country’. This is an extraordinary statement. It has been widely acknowledged that those affected by the Windrush scandal are British citizens – having arrived as dependents of their parents who entered the UK as Commonwealth Citizens – what Javid endorses here is akin to punishment by banishment. As the Labour MP David Lammy, a prominent critic of the government’s handling of the scandal, was quick to point out on Twitter:

All Windrush citizens who have been deported are British citizens. We do not deport British citizens – if they have committed a crime they serve their time. We stopped deporting citizens to Australia in 1868. They are citizens first and foremost, everything else is secondary.

The son of migrants he may be (his response to Marr’s questioning on Islamophobia in the Conservative Party – ‘just look at who the Home Secretary is’ – shows that he is not above using his biography to deflect political criticism), but Javid shows as little inclination as his predecessors towards using his position at the Home Office to push for an immigration policy that sees migrants and those with precarious or uncertain immigration statuses as human beings availed of fundamental rights and dignities. For the many people affected by the Home Office’s hostile environment, Javid’s appointment to the top job does indeed seem to be a case of ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’.