Hostile environment

Part of Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:30 pm ar 18 Mehefin 2020.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General) 3:30, 18 Mehefin 2020

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?