New hostile environment policies show Windrush lessons ‘not been learned’

Immigration experts scathing about Home Office plans to tighten access to services for people without legal status

Home Office plans to reheat “thoroughly discredited” hostile environment policies show the government has not learned lessons from the Windrush scandal, immigration experts have said.

A taskforce to crack down on illegal immigration is being set up, the Home Office announced on Sunday. As well as blocking access to banking for those without immigration status, it intends to find new ways of checking individuals’ immigration status when they use schools or the NHS.

The immigration minister Robert Jenrick is leading an intradepartmental group to limit many services for those without status. A tightening of access to rented housing, bank accounts, healthcare, education, driving licences and public funds will all be looked at.

Jacqueline McKenzie, who represented many of the original Windrush victims and is a partner at the law firm Leigh Day, said: “The hostile environment never really went away but, for outward appearances, the language was changed. But it is distressing nevertheless to hear of a formal resumption of the ideas.”

She added: “Given that the Windrush scandal is far from resolved, this is not the time for the government to be reinstating the very systems and policies which have been thoroughly discredited.”

Jenrick said: “Illegal working causes untold harm to communities, cheating honest workers of employment, putting vulnerable people at risk and defrauding the public purse. Our immigration enforcement teams are working to bring those violating our laws to justice. It’s our priority to crack down on this crime and empower law enforcement to remove illegal migrants.”

However, 21 trade unions have also accused the government of allowing further exploitation of migrant workers and undocumented people by returning to hostile environment policies.

Unison, the UK’s biggest trade union, and the PCS union, the biggest public sector union, are among those to have written to the government claiming that its policies, along with its temporary visa schemes, will put migrant workers at increased risk of abuse.

Commenting on the latest rhetoric, McKenzie said: “Once again, a home secretary wants to place non-state actors in a position of snooping and passing on information which they hold in confidence. In arguing that there’s a need to check on illegal working, the government is peddling the idea that migrants are stealing the jobs of British people, but have not offered any evidence or data to support their claim.”

The power to suspend bank accounts was halted in the wake of the Windrush scandal. A government watchdog found in 2017 that one in 10 people refused a bank account because of a failed immigration check were wrongly denied access.

A decision to reintroduce the checks was signalled by Rishi Sunak last month, when he pledged to improve the backlog in asylum cases.

Daniel Sohege, director of the human rights group Stand For All, said: “These measures only end up denying people security, and leading to more being pushed into precarious positions, which can leave them vulnerable to becoming undocumented and even exploited. When you have an error rate as high as was seen last time these types of measures were tried, the inevitable outcome is disenfranchising innocent people.”

Sohege said the latest announcement was an attempt to deflect from serious problems facing the country, such as the cost of living crisis and the challenges in the NHS.

“It’s a desperate move to try and avoid dealing with actually important issues, while attempting to appear to be taking some form of action,” he said. “The irony being that immigration is essential in resolving the very issues, such as staffing shortages, which the government is using this renewed hostile environment to avoid talking about.”

Stephen Kinnock, the shadow immigration minister, said: “Each time the Conservatives ramp up the rhetoric they end up making things worse. They have broken our asylum system – as shown by the fact that they have failed to stop child migrants being kidnapped from hotels by criminal gangs, with 79 still missing from one Sussex hotel alone. Their chaos is feeding criminality and exploitation. We know from the Windrush scandal that they can’t be trusted to put proper safeguards in. They are also failing to clamp down on employers who are exploiting migrant workers, having failed to set up the single employment enforcement authority that they promised in their 2019 manifesto – which Labour and trade unions have called for.”

Rob McNeil, deputy director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said: “Many of the original ‘hostile environment’ policies, introduced by Theresa May a decade ago, are still in place – sanctions on landlords who rent to irregular migrants and to employers who take on workers without proof of their legal status, for example. There is also little evidence that many of the punitive measures actually deter irregular migration or compel irregular migrants to leave the UK.

“Analysis by the government’s Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration found evidence that some of these policies contributed to discrimination toward many migrants and minority communities in the UK perfectly legally. One outcome of this was the Windrush scandal.”

The Home Office has been approached for comment.


Emily Dugan and Rajeev Syal

The GuardianTramp

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