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Immigration Bill: Government side-steps calls for humanitarian balance

Written by Alina Müller, Migrants' Rights Network, 07 December 2015

During the Commons debate on the Immigration Bill last week, MPs opposing it made strong appeals to the government's sense of compassion, justice and fair-play. The government remained emphatically unmoved.

For anyone following the debate on the Immigration Bill 2015-2016 since its introduction in September, the latest debate in the House of Commons provided few surprises and might even have felt repetitive both in content and outcome.

Scottish Nationalist MP Stuart C. McDonald set the tone for the debate by declaring that the bill was 'ill-conceived and regressive'. Its main purpose, he said, is to make the Government look tough on immigration to supporters disappointed by it failure to hit the 'tens of thousands' target for net migration by 2015.

The discussion then moved between considering amendments to specific provisions in the bill and questioning its general premise and purpose.

Civil Society Arguments

Most of the challenges to the Bill echoed the concerns raised by civil society groups about the impact of the bill on the rights of:

  • migrants and asylum seekers;
  • community relations and social cohesion;
  • the welfare of children and families
  • victims of labour market exploitation.

The case was made for scrapping landlord checks on the immigration status of tenants, introduced by the Immigration Act 2014. Arguing against the checks, Labour's Sir Keir Starmer cited the JCWI reportwhich uncovered evidence that landlords are prepared to discriminate against prospective tenants that 'appear foreign'.

An amendment was proposed calling for the government to provide a detailed evaluation of the scheme before the planned nationwide roll-out date in February next year even though this was published in October this year.

Exploitation

Amendments were also proposed in relation to the controversial new offence of 'illegal working'. These called for, firstly, the complete removal of the provision or, failing that, the introduction of protection from prosecution for workers that might find themselves unknowingly working in breach of the immigration rules. The main argument against the creation of an offence of illegal working was that it would deter exploited workers from coming forward to report abusive employers. In this respect the bill's opponents said it would work against the government's commitment to tackling modern day slavery and trafficking.

There was also a call for the bill to make it explicit that the newly created post of Director of Labour Market Enforcement will focus on protecting the victims of labour market exploitation rather than on immigration enforcement.

The government response was to reiterate its belief that restricting access of undocumented migrants to work and housing would provide the incentive needed to get them to leave the country of their own accord as well as deter others from coming. The amendments were defeated on a vote.

Cross-party Opposition

The biggest and most persistent challenge to the Immigration Minister came from a cross-party group of parliamentarians that renewed their call for the introduction of a 28-day maximum time limit on immigration detention and for the exemption from detention of pregnant women, victims of trafficking, torture and sexual violence.

MPs from across the political divide presented evidence in the form of case studies, statistics, expert advice as well as examples from other European countries to argue that "sustaining a position of indefinite detention is no longer acceptable in the 21st century."

Though the Government rejected the calls for a 28-day limit on detention, the discussion revealed a strong cross-party agreement on the need for fundamental reform of the immigration detention system. It also paved the way for the issue to be addressed in more detail in the House of Lords.

Refugee family reunification got a rare airing in the debate. Labour MP Yvette Cooper made a strong case for making it easier for refugees to be reunited with family members in the UK. She argued that existing family reunification rules keep young people apart from their siblings and children away from their parents. Cooper went on to call for the government to show compassion and a commitment to family values. Although this discussion didn't lead to any changes in the bill the issue is likely to gain momentum in light of the UK's military involvement in Syria and the continued arrival of a large numbers of refugees in Europe.

Asylum families

Labour's Sir Keir Starmer challenged plans in the bill to withdraw support for asylum seeker families whose claim has been rejected. Starmer questioned the underlying premise of the measure saying: "Let us call a spade a spade. Withdrawing support for this category of migrants is a threat of destitution as a means of enforcing immigration rules. All the evidence suggests that it is counterproductive. (…) Destitution in the 21st century should not be a means of enforcing immigration rules, or any other rules, yet that is what lies behind the provisions."

In response Immigration Minister James Brokenshire trotted out the long-established government line, saying: "it is not appropriate to use public money to support illegal immigrants."

This exchange illustrates perhaps the biggest difference in the points of view between the government and those opposing the bill. On the one hand, the government continues to insist, as Theresa May did when she brought the debate to an end, that its whole thrust is directed towards tackling "illegal migrants" who 'ignore the law, remain illegally in this country and take advantage of our very generous public services". While the Bill's opponents have time and time again argued that in fact its victims will be vulnerable families; children and parents, hardworking people; and victims of war and political upheaval.

Opponents of the bill made much of the argument that when it comes to applying compassion and 'British values' to the task of managing migration with fairness and compassion, the balance of the argument is on their side.

The government disagreed and the substantially un-amended Bill will go to the Lords later this month, where the battle to arrest its progress will continue.

About the author: Alina Müller is the Policy Officer at Migrants' Rights Network. She has a background as a researcher and project coordinator in the fields of migration and development, and holds an MA in Conflict, Security and Development from King's College London.
This blog post originally appeared on the Migrants' Rights Network blog and is reproduced with our thanks to Migrants' Rights Network.

Any views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of EIN