Immigration: Hostile Environment - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:20 pm on 14th June 2018.

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Photo of Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Crossbench 12:20 pm, 14th June 2018

My Lords, it turns out that this debate is extremely important for forward-looking reasons, as well as for the reasons raised by the noble Lord, Lord Morris. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, on introducing this debate and the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, on giving us a vivid sense of a current issue.

The best protection against being misclassified as an illegal immigrant, and any consequential application of restrictions from which one should be exempt, is surely to be able to demonstrate either that one is a citizen, or that one is a non-citizen with specific rights, such as rights to travel to, to live, or to work in the UK. An ability to demonstrate entitlement is crucial. We have seen some of the consequences of inability to demonstrate entitlement in the sorry story of the events that affected some members of the Windrush generation, as well as, as already noted, the experience of others who were not from the Caribbean but from other overseas jurisdictions.

We are all now aware that a policy that aimed to create a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants in fact led to the mistreatment of persons who were not illegal immigrants but were entitled to live and work in the UK. That was a shameful failure at many levels and, in particular, because it reflects a total misunderstanding of the proper approach to enforcing immigration law.

I have some direct experience of the proper application of such legislation. Many years ago, I received a travel grant from the US Fulbright Commission enabling me to travel to the US to take up a place at a graduate school. One condition of the visa that I consequently received was that, once my studies were completed, I would leave the US for at least two calendar years. This was a clear and lawful requirement, with which I complied, although by then I had both a spouse and an infant with US passports; that did not make a difference. Immigration restrictions form a proper part of a rules-based international order, and do not require the creation of hostile environments. Indeed, their enforcement is likely to be damaged by the fantasy of creating hostile environments.

If rules are to be enforced, it has to be feasible for people to obtain the documents they need in order to demonstrate their entitlements. Many of us have such documents; probably most of us in your Lordships’ House have passports, and so do many of our fellow citizens. However, not everyone has a passport, and many have no other form of robust identification. We have tried in this country to do without ID cards, which some see as an intrusion into privacy. I have to say that I find this attitude dated and quaint: many of those who object to ID cards nevertheless go around with mobile phones that systematically disseminate far more information about them—their location, contacts, payments and many other matters—which ID cards do not provide. But there are also many people who do not have passports and lack other robust identification documents, so may be unable to demonstrate their entitlements. They are at risk in ways in which some members of the Windrush generation were at risk.

This is particularly important in the context of Brexit. Discussions of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have so far mainly focused on trade and customs, and have in my view often failed to address the question of demonstrating the entitlements of persons. Indeed, there is a persistent assumption that avoiding a hard border is merely a matter of avoiding checks at the Republic of Ireland/Northern Ireland border by using online technologies. That seems to me a muddled view, for at least two reasons.

First, what makes a border hard is not the technology used—whether it is a red and white pole across the road, cameras, armed customs officers or, for that matter, online technologies—but the fact that it is a demarcation at which complex discriminations between different sorts of persons or goods are enforced. Of course the technology has to be appropriate, but remote technology does not alter the fact that complex discriminations are made and enforced. Secondly, the fantasy that remote technologies are the way to avoid hard borders is currently compounded by concentrating, excessively I think, on issues that bear on the movement of goods—that is, trade—rather than of persons. Yet the movement of persons is, I think we would all agree—particularly in the light of what we now know about members of the Windrush generation—of greater importance than the movement of goods.

As we all know, the common travel area set up in the 1920s accords people from the UK, the Republic of Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands extensive entitlements in all these jurisdictions. In particular, Irish and British citizens—I will not say more about the islands, because they are much smaller numbers—have rights to travel to, live in, work in and, if resident, register to vote in the other jurisdiction. That is of particular importance for several reasons. Not everyone has a passport and not everyone can demonstrate where they were born—it is quite common for people to not be quite certain where they were born. Many people who regularly cross the Irish Sea by boat do not have passports; they are not required to have them as they are for air travel. Some of those people would have difficulty showing what their entitlements were. Some who could get together the evidence that could demonstrate that they are entitled to a passport could not afford to obtain a passport for each family member. Those who were born, for example, in homes for unwed mothers and then placed for adoption—such as the home in Newry, County Down, which was recently the subject of considerable media attention and which distributed children for adoption in many jurisdictions with questionable consents—could probably not demonstrate their entitlements. Many other people do not know exactly where they were born. They were, perhaps, informally adopted or grew up in extended families. Many others with complicated circumstances may not be able to prove their identity and their entitlements.

This is relevant, because it reaches far into the future. It is important to be sure that all those who are entitled to live, to work and to register to vote, if resident, throughout these islands are able to demonstrate their entitlements. So I have three questions for the Minister. First, what estimate have Her Majesty’s Government made of the number of entitled persons in the UK who currently lack robust means of identification, and therefore robust means of demonstrating their entitlements? Secondly, what conversations have Her Majesty’s Government had with the Irish Government about the number of persons living in the Republic of Ireland who would have parallel difficulties, but who are entitled to travel to, live in, work in and, if resident, vote in the UK? Thirdly, have the Government addressed the question of the affordability of obtaining robust means of identification and considered what needs to be done to ensure that those who are entitled to travel, live, work and, if resident, register to vote here but who lack means of identification, are able to avoid the uncertainties and ultimately, in some cases, the harassment and exclusion experienced by some of the Windrush generation by gaining access to robust identification documents? None of us wants a new, and probably larger, version of the Windrush scandal as a result of Brexit.