History will judge Theresa May harshly. In recent weeks, the appalling stories about the impact of the government’s “hostile environment” policy reported by our sister paper, the Guardian, have continued to grow in number. They paint a shocking picture of a Kafkaesque state that has denied people who came to the UK from the Commonwealth as children their rightful entitlement to work, to housing and to healthcare.
May has maintained these are people who have been wrongly caught up in her 2013 decision as home secretary to create a “really hostile environment” for people living in Britain illegally. But their tragic stories are the direct consequence of a policy so punitive that it would inevitably make life intolerable for legal British residents.
People without a passport are now being required to provide an absurd level of proof – four pieces of documentary evidence for each year of residence – of their legal status.
Without this, they can no longer work, rent a home, open a bank account or access NHS care and may be detained and threatened with deportation. Doctors, bank clerks and landlords have become obliged to snoop on their fellow citizens by checking up on their immigration status.
The government has doggedly pursued a hostile environment as a cheap alternative to investing in the border force and a functioning programme of exit checks. But leave the rhetoric aside and there is no evidence it is effective in encouraging people in Britain illegally to leave; the number of voluntary departures has actually fallen from its peak in 2013. What it has achieved, however, is seeding discrimination: research has found that requiring landlords to check people’s papers makes them less likely to rent to people with foreign accents or names.
May’s initial response when the Windrush generation cases were first raised can only be described as callous. When Jeremy Corbyn wrote to her to raise the case of Albert Thompson, a man who moved to Britain from Jamaica as a child and whose mother worked as a nurse, but who has now been refused radiotherapy on the NHS, she first refused to intervene. Downing Street initially turned down a formal request to meet from 12 representatives of Caribbean countries. It has taken May months since the Guardian first reported on these cases to offer reassurances that the situation will be resolved for the Windrush generation and that they will be offered compensation.
This does not go far enough. A wider group of lives is being blighted by the hostile environment. One case is that of Jay, a young black person born in the UK and taken into care as a baby and who was refused a passport. A state that was in loco parentis to him for almost 18 years threatened to deport him to a country he’d never even visited as an adult. Other children have lost their right to apply for British citizenship when they turned 18 because local authorities did not secure their citizenship while they were in their care.
There are countless other casualties of the hostile environment, such as families separated from their children because of the Home Office’s harsh rules.
Those who become caught up in this are confronted with a cruel Home Office bureaucracy that operates outside the principles of natural justice. Officials are incentivised to reject applications for the tiniest of technical errors; immigration application fees are so high they are generating profits of up to 800% for the state, and there is no longer any right of appeal or legal aid available in most types of immigration cases.
Children as young as 10 who were born in the UK are subjected to a “good character” test when they apply for citizenship; if they have been cautioned, their application can be refused.
The hostile environment will also have huge ramifications in the context of Brexit. EU citizens who have a right to remain in Britain but who cannot afford to secure the necessary papers will become similarly ensnared. We can expect EU leaders watching this crisis unfold to insist rightly on more robust guarantees for their citizens as a result.
Both the prime minister and the home secretary, Amber Rudd, must accept full responsibility. Rudd’s attempt to pass the buck to officials for implementing government policy last week was utterly disingenuous. But it was Theresa May who was responsible for developing this approach while she was home secretary. Were she still in that post, her position would have been untenable.
It is not enough to address the plight of the affected members of the Windrush generation. The government must dismantle the hostile environment altogether and restore a sense of natural justice to the immigration system; this should include relaxing its evidence requirements and slashing its application fees. Nobody who has grown up in Britain should be denied citizenship.
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