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Hostile environment

Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 18th June 2020.

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“(1) For the purpose of this section, a person (“P”) is defined as any person who, immediately before the commencement of Schedule 1, was—

(a) residing in the United Kingdom in accordance with the Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2016;

(b) residing in the United Kingdom in accordance with a right conferred by or under any of the other instruments which is repealed by Schedule 1; or

(c) otherwise residing in the United Kingdom in accordance with any right derived from European Union law which continues, by virtue of section 4 of the EU Withdrawal Act 2018, to be recognised and available in domestic law after exit day.

(2) Regulations under section 4(1) may not be made until the Government has brought forward legislative measures to ensure that hostile environment measures do not apply to P, specifically—

(a) sections 20-43 and 46-47 of the Immigration Act 2014;

(b) sections 34-45 of the Immigration Act 2016; and

(c) schedule 2, paragraph 4 of the Data Protection Act 2018.” —

This new clause seeks to limit the application of the hostile environment.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It used to be that the Home Office enforced immigration rules by good old-fashioned intelligence-led investigation and action, but under political pressure and the influence of austerity, increasingly the Home Office has decided to rely on essentially outsourced immigration control, hoping that if they made life tougher for unauthorised migrants, they would leave of their own accord. This is of course the hostile environment, and it has been ramped extensively in the last two Immigration Acts, such that little landladies and landlords, as well as bank staff and Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency workers, all have to work as immigration officers now. All sorts of Government Departments are tasked with helping the Home Office with its work by sharing information, which makes people wary of accessing public services.

When these measures were introduced, Opposition MPs warned that there would be all sorts of negative consequences and that errors would be made, meaning that people would be denied housing or would have their bank accounts closed when they should not have been. We warned that there was little to suggest that attempts at enforcing destitution and desperation would persuade people to leave, that its impact would lead to all sorts of injustices, and that it could actually make immigration enforcement harder, not easier, as undocumented migrants are forced into the hands of unscrupulous landlords and employers and made ever more difficult to trace.

Four and six years on from the relevant Immigration Acts, the Bill would see that same hostile environment impacting on many more people. We should not allow that to happen without first assessing whether the Government have achieved what they set out to achieve with the hostile environment measures, or whether the warnings from Opposition MPs have been proven correct. Has the hostile environment achieved anything, or has it caused relentless problems, as was forecast?

It appears that the Home Office cannot tell us what the impact of the hostile environment has been in contributing to its policy goals. As the National Audit Office said only yesterday, it is currently unable to assess whether these measures have had any meaningful impact on the likelihood that an individual will leave the UK voluntarily. In fact, the number of voluntary departures has reduced significantly since 2015—in 2015 there were an average of 1,200 such voluntary departures each month, and by 2019 that was down to 460.

That echoes previous findings by the chief inspector of borders and immigration in relation to the right to rent, which is probably the most dangerous of the hostile measures, in that it leaves private citizens with the job of doing immigration checks. He concluded that the scheme had yet to demonstrate its worth as a tool for encouraging immigration compliance, with the Home Office failing to co-ordinate, maximise or even measure effectively its use, while doing little to address stakeholder concerns.

I want to emphasise those concerns. Time and again, the Home Office has been warned about the discrimination in the housing market caused by the right to rent scheme. These warnings came from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and from the Residential Landlords Association. It is not difficult to understand how this comes about. Let us imagine a close relative who happens to let properties. How easy would it be for them to assess immigration status? How easy would it be for them not to be influenced by the fact that if they made a mistake in that assessment they would face criminal prosecution, a fine and even imprisonment? It is blindingly obvious that there is a huge danger of discrimination. Repeated surveys and assessment by organisations such as JCWI and the Residential Landlords Association have shown that to be the case.

We now have a court case proceeding to the Supreme Court. Both in the High Court and in the Court of Appeal, the finding of fact was made that this scheme has in fact resulted in discrimination. The Home Office had success at the Court of Appeal stage, on the basis that on paper and in theory the scheme could be operated in a way that did not lead to discrimination, but that is not anything to celebrate. The scheme has been ruled lawful, but it has been found to operate in a discriminatory way.

This is a time when we really must have a thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of what has happened to immigration policy and the functioning of the hostile environment. That is exactly what Wendy Williams suggested in her Windrush lessons learned review, yet today we have been asked to extend the scope of that hostile environment without such a review taking place, and without any evidence being provided by the Home Office that the scheme is having an impact or contributing towards any of its policy goals.

Right to rent is the most scandalous of these problems, but it is causing all sorts of problems in other areas as well. For example, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration found that something like 10% of the bank accounts that have been closed as part of the scheme related to people who had every right to be here. That is a huge number of people who have been caused problems by this way of doing things, and they are not only migrants; of course, several million UK citizens do not have a passport and therefore struggle sometimes to prove their right to access services and housing, and to go about their lawful business.

We need to know from the Minister what work is being done to assess the impact of the hostile environment. Rather than celebrating the finding that, in theory, the right to rent scheme could operate without discrimination, what work has been done to make sure that it operates without discrimination? If no such work has been done, or if it cannot be guaranteed that the scheme will operate without discrimination, when will it be repealed?

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I support new clause 55 and I would have supported new clause 47 had it been moved. Both new clauses seek to safeguard EEA and Swiss nationals from the reality of the Home Office’s hostile environment policy.

We have cited examples of potential problems relating to the hostile environment throughout the sittings of this Bill Committee, but the Windrush lessons learned review highlighted the structural flaws that permeate the hostile environment approach. Instead of increasing the effectiveness of the Home Office machine, that approach has instead led to the hounding of those unable to prove their status, while simultaneously disregarding the legitimacy of independent cases.

Throughout the sittings of this Committee, we have been at pains to articulate our concerns that unless the European Union settlement scheme is 100% successful, we will never be in a position to know whether it has been or not. People will suddenly find themselves subject to the hostile environment.

Of the Windrush generation, it has been said:

“Paulette Wilson was detained in an immigration removal centre and warned that she faced removal after living in the UK for 50 years. She spent decades contributing to the UK—working for a time in this very House—yet she was treated like a second-class citizen.

Junior Green had been in the UK for more than 60 years, raising children and grandchildren here, but after a holiday to Jamaica he was refused re-entry despite holding a passport confirming his right to be in the UK. The injustice he suffered was compounded when, because of this action, he missed his mother’s funeral.

Lives were ruined and families were torn apart.”—[Official Report, 19 March 2020; Vol. 673, c. 1154.]

Those words, setting out those examples, are an extract from the Home Secretary’s statement to the House on presenting the Williams review in March. Yet we are still waiting for the necessary structural reforms to be made at the Home Office to give us any confidence that those who missed the EUSS deadline, because of reasons that should be looked upon favourably, will not be refused by one of the same decision makers who made misguided judgment calls on Windrush cases in the pursuit of Home Office targets.

In trying to mitigate the impact of the Windrush scandal, the Government launched a number of initiatives to go into communities and undertake almost a tidying-up exercise, to ensure that people had the paperwork they needed to protect them from such encounters with the Home Office in future. The Commonwealth citizens taskforce and the vulnerable persons team have delivered that work in communities, but we know that comparable preventive initiatives seeking to support those most at risk of not applying to the EUSS on time have had to stop work, due to the coronavirus. I hope the Minister might be able to update us on how those activities will be super-charged to make up for lost time, once it is safe for them to continue.

On late applications, the Minister has said that he will provide a list of the reasons that would allow for a late application still to be considered, but we all accept and appreciate that he will never be able to foresee every set of circumstances. However, if the same decision makers and procedures that oversaw the really bad calls made for the Windrush generation are in place, we simply cannot consent to any extension of the hostile environment to this cohort and we will support new clause 55.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 3:45 pm, 18th June 2020

I would like to start by reassuring Opposition Members. We are making plans for what will be a major restart of engagement and promotion of the European settlement scheme in a face-to-face way. Work is still being done online. The latest statistics have been published and we always use those as an opportunity to promote the scheme and make it clear to people what their entitlement is. We still have a good flow of applications coming in even during the lockdown, which partly reflects the fact that the vast majority of people are applying by using an app on their phones. So strong work is being done there.

On the list of reasons for late applications being accepted, as I said on Tuesday it will be a non-exhaustive list because, as the hon. Member for Halifax rightly says, we cannot predict every single circumstance that would be a reasonable reason for being late. A common reason would be a child in care where the council did not apply, but the list will be non-exhaustive because no one could write all the reasons that we as individuals might find reasonable. So far, the scheme has operated by being flexible and pragmatic in working with those applying. That is why the grants of status are in the millions and the refusals in the hundreds.

I am grateful to hon. Members for their contributions. I share their desire to ensure that EEA citizens and their family members who are currently in the UK lawfully are not denied access to work, healthcare or anything to which they are currently entitled.

Photo of Gary Sambrook Gary Sambrook Conservative, Birmingham, Northfield

Does the Minister share my frustration when Opposition Members talk about the hostile environment? It was in fact a former Labour Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne, who, in May 2007, introduced the new immigration regulations that created a hostile environment in this country.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting that point. Many of the enforcement mechanisms that we use originate from before 2010. There is a little amnesia among some of the people who were here and voted for them. It is right that there are protections in place around public welfare benefits and suchlike. That has not been particularly controversial for parties of all colours over the past 10 to 20 years. We need to consider carefully the lessons learned review. In the Wendy Williams report there is a 2009 case of someone who was unable to return to the United Kingdom, even though they had a status granted under the Immigration Act 1971 as someone who had been settled in the UK before 1 January 1973.

As with many of the amendments that we have debated, the new clause is at odds with our commitment to the British people to introduce a single global migration system. New clause 55 is unnecessary, unworkable, and risks being detrimental to the cohort in question. As we have been clear before, free movement is ending, and from 1 January 2021 EEA and non-EEA citizens will be treated equally. Under the new system, everyone will be required to obtain the correct immigration status, and we will clearly distinguish between those who are here lawfully and those who are not, regardless of their nationality. Allowing EEA citizens to rent accommodation or exempting them from other measures, even if they do not have lawful immigration status, would contradict the Government’s stated position. It would in practice result in different rules applying, depending on a person’s nationality. This would be inherently discriminatory, given that there would be no justifiable reason for them after the end of the transition period.

New clause 55 would also weaken the UK’s new points-based immigration system. The measures in question are designed to encourage individuals to comply with UK laws and rules, and they have all been approved by Parliament. In the future, once free movement has ended, it is right that these measures will apply on the basis of whether or not someone has lawful status, rather than on the basis of their nationality, although I appreciate that the wording would probably be done to bring this within the scope of the Bill.

EEA citizens are already subject to the universal eligibility checks carried out by employers, landlords and the NHS, as these checks apply to everyone regardless of nationality, including British citizens. I had to show my own passport recently, when renting a flat. Disapplying the measures for a certain group would increase the scope for illegal migration and place taxpayer-funded services at risk of abuse.

It is not clear how new clause 55 would actually work. To exempt an EEA citizen from an eligibility check, it would first be necessary to establish that they are part of the exempt cohort. It would not be possible for those carrying out the checks, including employers and landlords, to do this without checking everyone, as they do now, to establish eligibility. Alternatively, they would have to second-guess who was in a particular cohort, which brings the obvious risks of leading to potential discrimination and unfair treatment.

I recognise that the hon. Members for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East and for Halifax wish to ensure that EEA citizens and their family members who are currently resident in the UK are not adversely impacted by such measures. This is why we have set up the EU settlement scheme, making it free and easy to get UK immigration status and to enjoy the same rights as now. That is why I believe it would be unhelpful to accept the new clause, and the Government will not do so.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

I am grateful to the Minister for his response, but I feel he rather skirted around getting to the heart of the issue, and he knows full well that the new clause is as it is because of issues of scope. When he talked about how this would not work because there would have to be checks on whether an EU national was seeking to take advantage of this new clause, he spoke about the dangers of guessing whether an individual may or may not be an EU national. That is exactly the problem with the right to rent scheme at the moment, in that some landlords and landladies are guessing people’s nationality when they are approached with inquiries about accommodation. I am glad that he has recognised that there are dangers in the scheme that causes such judgments to be made. Yes, there are problems with the wording of the new clause because of scope, but I shall drop it for now and think about this again in advance of Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.