“Britain does not need net migration in the hundreds of thousands every year… So there is no case, in the national interest, for immigration of the scale we have experienced over the last decade.” Theresa May, Conservative Party Conference, October 2015
At a faster pace than any had imagined, we are today welcoming a new Prime Minister. A Prime Minister who made a forceful case for significantly cutting immigration when given a platform at last year’s party conference. A Prime Minister who has headed up the department which oversees the design and implementation of immigration policy in the UK over the last six years. A Prime Minister who will need to grapple with, amongst other issues, the position of current and future European migrants to the UK in any upcoming negotiations on the implementation of a ‘Brexit’. It seems prudent, therefore, to reflect on her last six years at the Home Office and consider what her department’s past actions and particularly that speech at last year’s party conference may portend for us who work in immigration or who avail ourselves of the immigration system moving forward.
Many of the developments over the last six years can be seen in the context of a Government striving to meet the arbitrary target of reducing immigration to the tens of thousands. In this quest, no immigration category has been left untouched.
We have seen the imposition of strict new rules for family members. Strict new rules touted by our new Prime Minister in her speech last year because these rules meant that ‘the numbers went down’. That is undoubtedly true but questions remain as to whether such a reduction has been positive, particularly in light of a report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on immigration, which found that the new rules had meant that ‘some children, including British children, have been indefinitely separated from a non-EEA parent’ and that the ‘income requirement is likely to have long-term social impacts in the UK’. This included reports of family breakdown, increased reliance on public funds and support services as only one parent was in the UK to financially and personally care for the family and a long term loss of tax revenue from higher earning non-EEA partners.
Despite a series of damning statistical and anecdotal reports about the impact of these new family rules, we have seen no scaling back or concessions and a dogged fight in the Courts against any attempts to minimise the harsh impacts of these family rules.
Turning to the position of workers in the UK, we have been on a roller coaster of never ending changes and consultations over the course of David Cameron’s premiership. This has seen the introduction of a cap on sponsored workers coming from outside the EU, an increase in the skill level and minimum salaries for sponsored workers and greater scrutiny of employers who seek skilled workers from overseas to fill gaps in the resident labour market. This increasingly difficult environment for UK employers looks set to become even more challenging if the result of any Brexit negotiations is to essentially end free movement across Europe. The CBI/Accenture Employment Trends Survey 2015, The Path Ahead, found that ‘the government’s rhetoric on immigration is undermining competitiveness’ and that ‘…further restrictions on skilled migration would hamper business activity’.
Again, our new Prime Minister will be able to claim a reduction in numbers but if we look beyond those figures, questions about whether this is a positive thing will abound.
In our new Prime Minister’s speech last year, much time was dedicated to the efforts the Government had made to cut student migrant numbers. Such measures though, while successful in reducing the overall numbers and cutting down on fraudulent courses and colleges, have had less welcome impacts on our best respected universities as they struggle to compete in a growing global market of higher education. Theresa May’s hard line on student migrants has been criticised by other politicians (including her colleague the outgoing chancellor George Osborne), business leaders such as Sir James Dyson and of course by academics and chancellors at universities across the UK. The UK economy is a huge beneficiary of international students, with estimates of up to £18 billion contributed annually. UK universities are also hugely reliant on funding from international students, particularly at a time when the funding they rely upon from the EU could be at risk in future negotiations. Changes making the acquisition and retention of a student visa more difficult, as well as limiting the options for high achieving graduates to contribute to the UK at the end of their courses, combined with anti-migrant rhetoric have been successful in reducing the numbers but equally in harming the UK education sector and our economy overall.
Over the last six years, we have seen two Immigration Acts. Both of these, including the 2016 Act which began to come into force yesterday, have sought to create a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants through the introduction of new criminal offences, harsher civil penalties and reduced access to justice through a decimated appeal system. This has impacted on all aspects of society, from regulating the right to rent, linking lawful driving to a requirement to have a lawful status in the UK and requiring banks to close bank accounts. The right to appeal against a Home Office decision and have such an appeal heard before an independent adjudicator is now restricted to only a handful of applicants. This is despite around 50% of Home Office visa refusals being overturned on appeal under the old system. In these ways, the legislation has had impacts on all migrants in the UK, not only ‘illegal immigrants’ as we highlighted in one of our previous blogs.
Perhaps the most virulent attacks in Theresa May’s speech last year were reserved for those who concern themselves with basic human rights and how these interact with immigration law. In her concluding remarks, she noted,
‘And my message to the immigration campaigners and human rights lawyers is this: you can play your part in making this happen – or you can try to frustrate it. But if you choose to frustrate it, you will have to live with the knowledge that you are depriving people in genuine need of the sanctuary our country can offer. There are people who need our help, and there are people who are abusing our goodwill – and I know whose side I’m on.’
Reading this paragraph of her speech again today I am troubled, as I was 10 months ago, by the threatening tone of these comments and the suggestion that the only way to help those most vulnerable and in need of asylum is to fall in with her plans. However, I am also resolute.
As citizens in the UK, we ‘immigration campaigners and human rights lawyers’ understand there is widespread concern about immigration levels. Such concern has been pointed to as a key factor in the referendum result on 23rd June. Rising migration levels have been pointed to as a reason for growing inequality, increasing discontent with public services, and a general feeling that things are getting worse. For me, Theresa May’s speech of October 2015 was simply another page in this oft told story.
However, as ‘immigration campaigners and human rights lawyers’ we also understand how crucial immigration is to the UK. How businesses depend on foreign workers, how universities and the economy rely on foreign students, how families can span nationalities and continents and how important it is to help them grow together rather than be kept apart. We also understand that, as signatories to both the European Convention on Human Rights and the 1951 Refugee Convention, we have obligations (both of a legal and moral character) which may not always fit a convenient political narrative.
After re-reading Theresa May’s speech on the eve of her taking on the mantle of Prime Minister, I am resolute that as ‘immigration campaigners and human rights lawyers’ we must continue to do our best to continue to frustrate our new Prime Minister’s efforts to implement an agenda she set out at the end of last year.
We must frustrate the narrative that paints immigration as something which is always ‘bad’ and can only be fixed by being reduced. We must frustrate a press which never questions this narrative and only asks how such a goal of reduction may be achieved. And we must frustrate any attempts by our new Prime Minister and her Government to further quash the rights of migrants and their families across all elements of society.