Ex-Conservative Party leader and Member of Parliament for Chingford, Iain Duncan Smith, last month recommended to new Home Secretary Priti Patel that the government increase the minimum threshold that an immigrant must earn to be granted entry to the U.K. be set at £36,700 after Brexit. This is greater than the median salary of £28,677 in the U.K. and represents more than a nurse currently makes in a year in the U.K. But how does this recommendation fit in with the context of modern British immigration policy since the coalition government took power in 2010? The biggest outcry against this policy has come from people pointing out groups that would not be eligible to come to the U.K. on the basis of this wage floor: nurses, teachers, service industry workers, retail workers and journalists would all be highly unlikely to make the cut, to name but some of those non-U.K. citizens who could be affected post-Brexit. A spokesperson for Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who has been a vocal critic of Priti Patel, said that “the Mayor believes the government should instead be lowering it to £21,000 and welcoming the skilled migration that London, and the rest of the country, will desperately need post-Brexit”. Priti Patel herself has only been in the role since July 24th when new Prime Minister Boris Johnson appointed his cabinet following his successful Conservative leadership campaign.
If this were to become Britain’s new immigration policy, it would follow nine years of Conservatives tightening immigration laws, which has made entry to the U.K. for both legal and illegal immigrants much harder. Whilst the Labour Party in 2008 were the ones to introduce different tiers of visas that allowed for different economic activities and durations of stays for migrants, the Conservative Party in 2010 positioned themselves as the party to be stricter on immigration, pledging to reduce immigration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. As per the fact-checking charity Full Fact, they have never been successful and net migration to the U.K. has remained staunchly over 300,000 during the coalition and Theresa May’s successive governments. This was however, not for lack of trying, nor for lack of a crackdown on immigration into the U.K. In 2012, the coalition announced that to bring a spouse into the U.K., migrants no longer had to earn £5,500, but instead £18,600 with an extra £2,400 of income per extra child they wanted to bring in to the country. By 2014, when trying to increase this wage value again, Migration Observatory reported that 43% of British nationals wouldn’t have been able to afford to bring any family over at that wage level, rising to 51% for minorities and 60% for people in their twenties.
One of the architects of the immigration policy of the Conservative Party has been Theresa May, former Home Secretary from 2010-2016 and Prime Minister from 2016-July 2019. Speaking in 2012 about Conservative policy, she said “the aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants” and hostility is what immigrants have faced. Immigration lawyer Colin Yeo gave his verdict on what the hostile environment has actually meant for those affected, describing the policy as “the creation of an illegal underclass of foreign, mainly ethnic minority workers and families who are highly vulnerable to exploitation and who have no access to the social and welfare safety net”. The Home Office sent around London what are now known as the ‘go home vans’ which literally instructed illegal immigrants to “Go Home or Face Arrest”, creating a very visible, distressing and unnecessary signal to some of the most vulnerable people in the U.K.
It has been not only illegal immigrants who have faced harsh treatment in the U.K., but also those who have been either seeking asylum or have come to the U.K. completely legally. The Windrush Scandal which emerged in 2018 showed that since 2013, the Home Office had been wrongfully attempting to deport people who had come to the U.K., whilst commonwealth nationals were still legally considered British citizens (and so didn’t need to apply like non-citizens) – and that some MPs were fully aware of this. Theresa May and Amber Rudd had both been responsible for, according to various U.K. news outlets, wrongfully deporting at least 83 people. It’s unclear exactly how many more people were detained without reason, fired from their jobs, or made homeless and denied access to benefits or healthcare, but these are all certainly consequences of suddenly being considered illegal by the government. Finally, on asylum claims, there has been a recent history of the Home Office ignoring threats to life of those claiming asylum. For instance, in 2017, when the Home Office was found in contempt of Court for violating the Human Rights Act by deporting Samim Bigzad to Kabul, Afghanistan despite there being a strong chance that, upon arrival, he would be murdered by the Taliban for working for British and American companies.
When thinking about policy implications and what needs to be done differently, it must first be noted that there is no sign that the Conservative Party has any interest in changing course. The rhetoric from Priti Patel and Boris Johnson seems to be that controlling immigration is something they will be pursuing very strongly after Brexit (probably) happens on 31st October. However, immigration policy is completely misguided on several different levels. The first thing is that the policies are not even working to meet the objectives of the Home Office. As per Migration Observatory, “the measures introduced to reduce non-EU net migration have not succeeded in reducing it significantly”. A much more sensible policy position would be for a start to not try and deport any illegal immigrants. The Institute for Public Policy Research estimates that “an amnesty [for illegal immigrants in the U.K.] could net the government up to £1.038 billion per year in fiscal revenue”. Instead, the Daily Mail have reported just this week that “Britain also gave millions of pounds of funding for equipment to tackle illegal immigration… but despite the measures, the number of people attempting to make the crossing has not decreased at all”. The choice therefore appears to be either to decriminalize illegal immigration and net the U.K. an extra billion pounds per year, or to spend millions of pounds on equipment that is not disincentivizing people from attempting to come to the U.K. Not only is decriminalizing immigration of benefit to the U.K., but it is the right thing to do. For those living illegally in the U.K., there is no access to healthcare for fear of being reported to the authorities and there is also very little co-operation with law enforcement for the same reason. A BBC Freedom of Information request found that over half of police units are passing on details of witnesses or victims to the Home Office, meaning that those who are treated as modern day slaves, domestically abused, or subject to ‘everyday’ crime cannot report anything. This is making the U.K. less safe to live in for everyone, as it hinders law enforcement’s job. One obstacle is public opinion on the matter, with Ipsos Mori polling currently suggesting that 58% want immigration reduced, but only 8% want to see it increased in the U.K. When viewed in the context of recent immigration policy, what looks like a very practical and necessary first step – the decriminalization of illegal immigrants – is not going to be considered by the current Conservative Party for ideological and possibly vote-winning reasons. However, looking at the evidence and reasoning for the policy, it makes a lot more sense than a cumbersome, expensive and terrifying system that is not working for the U.K. right now.
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