Fair Immigration Bill. Again?

1 November 2013
Panos Christodoulou

The new Immigration Bill after its formal presentation (First Reading) in the House of Commons had a Second Reading on the 22nd October 2013. It was the first official session in the Commons chamber and MPs from all parties debated the key issues, voted on the Bill and passed it by 303 votes to 18. The only parties currently opposed to the Immigration Bill are the Greens and the Scottish National Party. The Bill will move on to a Public Bill Committee for consideration with the final day of conclusion on the 19th of November.

Over the last century 13 different legislations for immigration have passed. Since 1999 there has been a new legislation almost every 2 years. With the new Immigration Bill the government, declares (through its Immigration Minister Mark Harper MP) the establishment of an immigration system “fair to British citizens and legitimate immigrants and tough on those who abuse the system and flout the law”. In its four parts (removals, appeals, access to services and marriages and civil partnerships) the Bill spans six Government departments (justice, transport, business, health, local government, and work and pensions) with an overabundance of measures that provoke severe concerns. The key measures within the Immigration Bill include:

Significant restrictions on access to appeals – facilitation of removals

The Bill reforms the appeals system. The government wishes to make the removals system easier and quicker by reducing the right to appeal (the right of appeal is removed in all cases except asylum and human rights cases), by extending the number of non-suspensive appeals and deporting criminal immigrants first and hearing their appeal later (unless there is risk of serious irreversible harm) and by restricting the ability of immigration detainees to apply for bail.

The Bill also creates stronger guidance for the courts to interpret narrowly and restrictively  “the right to private and family life” (Article 8 , European Convention on Human Rights [ECHR]) and in general to have ‘proper regard’ to the public interest on the use of human rights laws in immigration cases.

Significant restrictions on access to services

The government’s goal is to deter new arrivals by the introduction of new in-country enforcement mechanisms to tackle ‘irregular migration’. Most prominently the Bill introduces restriction to access to health care, private housing, bank accounts and driving licenses. In particular, it establishes an additional ‘immigration health charge’ for temporary migrants applying for entry clearance, temporary leave to enter or remain in the UK, requires private landlords to check and verify the immigration status of their tenants, requires banks to carry out status checks on new applicants for current accounts and introduces new powers to Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) to check driving licence applicants’ immigration status.

The aforementioned measures have already raised strong concerns to migrant and refugee communities and to organisations that defend their rights. MRN, Refugee Action, JCWI and many other expert groups criticise strongly the government’s plans and find the measures unjust, unworkable, expensive and potentially unlawful.

Appeals

The government’s attempt to reduce access to justice for migrants by removing the right of appeal for most immigration decisions will increase the number of people remaining in the UK without status rather than reduce the number of irregular migrants. Among those affected will be people who have lived in the UK for many years and people who have family members here. If they are not able to navigate a newly narrow appeals system, they are likely to choose to risk living further underground rather than leaving the UK.

Most importantly, people who have a perfectly valid reason to stay in UK will be unprotected since poor decision-making by the Home Office will go unchallenged. The available data relating to appeals suggests that appellants in the UK have a relatively high success rate on their appeal and indicates that initial decision-making by the Home Office is frequently poor. The concern is that by taking away the right of appeal the immigration system would be far from fair.

Article 8

British judges have rejected the Government’s past attempt to reduce the scope of Article 8 ECHR. Within the Immigration Rules the Home Secretary has introduced a narrow interpretation of the right to family life, but judges have clearly stated that that “goes against established law”. The Bill now in fact jeopardies the violation of the European Convention on Human Rights by advocating to judges that more weight should be given to public interest rather than to the fundamental right to a family life when considering cases involving people being deported or removed from the UK.

Health charge

The immigration health charge would affect all migrants, raising the costs for students and workers who already pay significant visa fees (to enter or to stay in the UK). More particularly, the introduction of this new charge would impact on some vulnerable or lower-paid groups of migrants coming to the UK.

The government has not yet produced any evidence on the likely cost to the NHS of these groups of migrants. However, all migrants in the UK already make a contribution towards the NHS (e.g. by paying taxes, VAT etc). Many migrants, if asked to pay a new immigration charge, will be making in fact a double contribution towards the NHS – a service which some will not use at all during their stay in the UK.

Immigration Checks by Landlords, Banks, DVLA…

With the new Immigration Bill, everyone seeking to rent a private property, or open a bank account, or secure a British driving license, could be impacted by the introduction of the new immigration document checks. In practice, however, it is expected that the checks will target migrants and ethnic minority British people as well. Co-opting private landlords, banks and DVLA staff, who are untrained and inexperienced in the business of checking immigration documents and identifying immigration status, will unavoidably result in racial discrimination against some migrants and ethnic minority British citizens.

Particularly, in the case of housing, irregular migrants, who already are victims of rogue landlords, will become more liable to exploitation or to homelessness. The penalty that the new Bill imposes on landlords who fail to check the immigration status of their tenants and the fact that immigration status is not straightforward, can easily lead landlords to not take the risk of letting to an ethnic minority individual or foreign national. In addition, slum landlords can continue to exploit and overcharge irregular migrants safe in the knowledge that they will not be caught. Their tenants, who are lacking the appropriate documentation will never denounce the exploitation since they will have no other option to rent accommodation.

From all the above, it is clear that the new Immigration Bill will only cause more problems and deteriorate the stigma that migrants face. Its excessive rules will increase migrants’ distrust and will push them further down the line. In any case the Immigration Bill cannot stop desperate people coming to the UK nor will it make those already here leave. As long as human rights abuses, humanitarian crisis and poverty persist in immigrants’ countries of origin, inevitably the flows will continue. If government believe their own words, that “immigrant communities are a fundamental part of who we are and we are a richer and stronger society because of them”, then they cannot be proud of the new Immigration Bill.


The Immigration and its Bill in numbers:

303 votes for – 18 against in the Second Reading in the House of Commons

13 different legislations for immigration over the last century

2 legislations every second year since 1999

6 Whitehall Departments dealing with the new Bill

618,000 irregular migrants in UK (among them 82,000 are children) – 1% of the total UK population (estimate by LSE)

89 pages of guidelines are given to employers on checking immigration status

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