Immigration: Hostile Environment - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:50 pm on 14th June 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development) 1:50 pm, 14th June 2018

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, for securing this debate, and all those who have spoken for their varied and interesting contributions. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, for his particularly thoughtful contribution, and pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Morris—our very own Windrush Member of your Lordships’ House.

It is true to say that the work of the Home Office is vast. Millions of visa, citizenship and settlement applications are granted every year, and thousands of people are provided with international protection thanks to the decisions of Home Office case workers. However, as the Home Secretary has made very clear—a number of noble Lords have alluded to this—as well as having a fair and humane immigration system, as the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has just mentioned, we need one that clearly distinguishes between those who are here legally and those who are here illegally, as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, very articulately pointed out. It is important to recall that successive Governments have put in place controls to deter illegal migration and protect public services.

It remains the case that the public expect us to enforce immigration laws approved by Parliament as a matter of fairness to those who abide by the rules. A recent YouGov poll showed that 71% of the public support our policy of requiring people to show documents to prove their entitlement to be here, work, rent a flat or access services and benefits. These measures have been introduced over many years. The first NHS charges for overseas visitors were introduced in 1982. The right-to-work checks were introduced in 1987, not 2014 as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 and the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 introduced restrictions on accessing benefits, social housing and social services. To return to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, we have to clamp down on people who are here illegally.

Key elements of the compliant environment policy were put in place by the Opposition when in office, and it was during that time that the policy was described by Ministers as a hostile environment against illegal immigration. I am happy to answer the question from the noble Lord, Lord Parekh: that is when it started. I am happy to confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, that Alan Johnson used the term “hostile environment” and that the term was used by the Immigration Minister Phil Woolas in 2010 in his strategy paper on immigration, following a similar strategy paper in 2005. So the term has been used, and noble Lords have made the point that we can all go back and blame various different people for it, but the current Home Secretary has made clear that it is a term that he does not want to use and that the term “compliant environment” better reflects our values as a country, ensuring that fair rules are properly upheld.

More recently, measures to prevent illegal migrants from accessing the private rented sector have been introduced to bring consistency with well-established controls on accessing social housing. Further controls on access to bank accounts and driving licences introduced in the 2014 and 2016 Acts carry on this trend. In relation to access to employment, which is one of the key draws for illegal immigration, employers have had a duty to prevent illegal working, as I have said, since 1997. Since 2008 this requirement has been underpinned by civil and criminal sanctions for non-compliant employers, which were introduced by the Opposition. If an employer is found to have employed someone illegally and they are unable to demonstrate that they have carried out the prescribed check, they may be liable to a civil penalty. There is a sliding scale of penalties and the maximum is currently £20,000 per illegal worker.

Employers comply with the law by undertaking a simple right-to-work check on new employees and repeat checks on those with time-limited status. This is a face-value check of an original document set out in secondary legislation as being acceptable for this purpose. Employers need to contact the Home Office only in certain specified circumstances, including when a potential employee has an outstanding immigration application or appeal, during which time they may be entitled to work. Employers can also contact us if they believe that someone has the right to work but does not have the necessary documents to evidence that right. Retrospective checks on people who were employed before checks were introduced are not required.

In setting the list of documents that individuals may provide to demonstrate their right to work, we have prescribed documents that most lawful residents already have or are able to obtain at minimum cost. For example, UK citizens may use their UK passport or alternatively their national insurance number in combination with their long birth or adoption certificate. I hope that that helps the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, but I understand her point about the Irish question. The Home Office provides guidance for employers, an interactive tool on checking a right to work and an employer checking service for employers who are unsure whether a potential employee has the right to work. The statutory code of practice makes it clear that employers should conduct checks on all prospective employees, not just those whom they believe may not have the right to work in the UK.

Several “compliant environment” measures have been the subject of public consultations, impact assessments and policy equality statements prior to introduction. Noble Lords will be aware that the Immigration Act 2014 also introduced the right-to-rent scheme, which noble Lords have referred to today. Engagement with the sector, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Northern Ireland Equality Commission and housing charities had a major impact during the design of that legislation. As a result of that engagement, we incorporated exemptions for accommodation occupied by vulnerable groups and enabled individuals to demonstrate their right to rent using a broad range of commonly available documents without a passport or photo identification.

The scheme was extended to cover the whole of England in February 2016, after an evaluation of its operation in the West Midlands found no evidence of discrimination arising, no impacts on levels of homelessness, no further barriers to people with little formal documentation accessing the sector and no impacts on the availability or costs of let accommodation—to answer the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that was posed by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, and the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. The evaluation also found that, where landlords engaged with the checks required, they found them to be straightforward and easy to operate. Landlords are not asked to be immigration or forgery experts, contrary to the assertions by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. The checks do not require all tenants to have passports or immigration papers.

For example, a check can be satisfied by presenting a letter from a charity involved in the access to the private rental scheme and a letter from a professional who can confirm that they have personally known the holder for at least three months. The scheme was modelled on the checks that many landlords have been carrying out themselves to establish the credentials of prospective tenants—for example, credit checks, which have been taking place for many years and which, for obvious reasons, landlords carry out diligently.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked me about immigration bail and the issue of study. As she acknowledged, I answered her very clearly on this point and I hope that she is satisfied with that. The case still stands as to what she asked me last week.