I have written two short pieces in the Observer over the past couple of weeks about immigration rules. They reflect on similar themes, so I am publishing here together. The first was published on 31 May under the headline ‘Boris Johnson is a picture of ignorance on immigration’; the second on 24 May under the headline ‘Despite U-turns, migrants to Britain are being failed miserably’.
The ignorance and the cruelty
Imagine a Prime Minister who comes to power promising to reform the nation’s immigration system, yet does not know of the existence of one of the central planks of the system, and one in particular need of reform. Imagine Boris Johnson.
Last week, he appeared before the parliamentary liaison committee. Labour’s Stephen Timms, chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, asked about the predicament of a couple, with two children, in his East Ham constituency. The husband is not furloughed so has zero income. The wife is still working but her income is less than their rent. ‘They have leave to remain in the UK but no recourse to public funds, so they can’t get any help at all’, Timms said.
‘Hang on Stephen’, the Prime Minister responded, ‘why aren’t they eligible for universal credit or employment support allowance or any of the other benefits?’
Because they have no recourse to public funds, a condition imposed on virtually all immigrants from outside the European Economic Area who do not have indefinite leave to remain here. They may have been working and paying taxes in Britain for years but they are ineligible for most benefits. The Home Office refuses to disclose figures, but the Children’s Society estimates that a million adults and 142,000 children may be affected. The policy, introduced by Labour in 1999, and strengthened and extended by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, is one of the most pitiless immigration rules and has caused particular hardship now.
And yet the Prime Minister seems not to know that it even exists.
It illuminates the nature of much of the immigration debate. Laws are passed as much for the optics as for the reality. Politicians often don’t know the consequences of those laws, or even that they exist. The ignorance is as shocking as the rules are cruel.
The deserving and the undeserving
The government, under pressure, backed down from its insistence that families of migrant workers who die from Covid-19 would not be allowed to remain in the UK. Twenty-four hours later, it backtracked on its policy that care workers and ancillary hospital staff would not be exempt from the NHS surcharge imposed on all immigrants to Britain.
The government’s U-turns are welcome. But not only are the changes half-hearted they also establish a division between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ immigrants.
The coronavirus crisis has created newfound admiration for low-paid ‘essential’ workers, from nurses and care staff to cleaners and bus drivers, many of whom are migrants. There was hope that such respect would translate into decent policy over wages, benefits and immigration status. Not so.
The government’s new immigration bill maintains the distinction between wanted ‘skilled’ workers and unwanted ‘unskilled’ ones. Many charges imposed on migrants are immensely unfair. The health surcharge, for instance, is not, as the health secretary, Matt Hancock, has claimed, to ensure that migrants make ‘a fair contribution towards our NHS’. Migrant workers already pay taxes, so are being charged twice. Nor is it a charge ‘to use the NHS’, as it is imposed whether or not a migrant uses the NHS. Most immigrants with a limited right to stay in Britain pay taxes but are denied benefits through the ‘no recourse to public funds’ rule, often causing immense hardship.
Not only are immigration rules unfair, they are also divisive. Bus drivers or cleaners may be essential workers, but if you’re a migrant you still have to pay the NHS surcharge and don’t get an automatic visa extension. Some immigrants, the government is signalling, are more ‘deserving’ than others.
The image is a poster by the artist Nathan Wyburn made up of hundreds of photos NHS.