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It's Frightening To Think We Can No Longer Trust Our Government To Protect The Rights Of Children

01/12/2016 15:51
Stefan Wermuth / Reuters

Theresa May was the longest-serving Home Secretary since 1892. She proudly presided over some of the most draconian and divisive home affairs policies the UK has ever seen.

But as leaked letters revealed today, behind closed doors she wanted to go even further.

The Cabinet letters uncover a battle that took place in the summer of 2015 between Mrs May and the Department for Education over her plans to push the children of illegal migrants to the back of the queue for school places. She wanted schools to demand passports from prospective pupils and withdraw places if their parents were found to be in the country without the proper papers. The right of children to an education was disregarded.

But the plans were too mean-spirited even for her former colleagues. Then-Education Secretary Nicky Morgan warned that the proposals could jeopardise efforts to tackle segregation and lead to safeguarding risks. To the Home Secretary's fury, the idea was dropped.

But just over a year later, with Theresa May in Number 10, a watered-down version of this policy has already crept quietly into our classrooms.

Since September, the Department for Education (DfE) has been compiling lists of foreign-born children - lists that could be used by the Home Office to deport families.

For those of us who are British, revealing our nationality is something we do without a thought - and there's often an implicit trust that schools and ministers have the best of intentions.

But for some, particularly in the wake of a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric and a surge in hate crime, this information is exposing. As we come to the end of an exceptionally divisive year, drawing attention to differences between children will do nothing to heal our communities.

Nicky Morgan's warning about the dangers of last year's plans - that some children might be kept away from school altogether because their parents' fear of deportation - applies equally to these new foreign children lists.

Ministers insist the list won't be passed to other departments. But the facts tell a different story. Figures made public by Education Minister Nick Gibb in October revealed the Home Office requested DfE data relating to more than 2,462 individuals between July 2015 and September 2016. Parents without the proper immigration papers have real reason to be fearful.

Children have a right to an education regardless of their family's circumstances - they should not be demonised, punished or alienated for the actions of their parents. To go against this principle is to abandon the values we share as a nation.

This policy of data collection is symptomatic of a Government that wants the tentacles of border control to take hold in every aspect of life. As one source put it to the BBC, Theresa May wants every government department to have its hands "dipped in blood".

It might sound extreme to use innocent children to track down and deport undocumented families - but it's a logical next step for a government that long ago crossed a line when it comes to controlling immigration, deploying authoritarian tactics that are as unfair as they are discriminatory.

For some time now, bank clerks, landlords and employers have been tasked with checking people have a right to be in the country. The potential for discrimination is crystal clear - anyone with a foreign-sounding name or accent, or anyone who doesn't have a white face, is likely to be targeted. Schools were one of the only borderless places left.

But there is a ray of hope for our children, and our society. In October, the House of Lords passed a motion of regret against the policy of forcing schools to collect nationality data - sending a strong signal to ministers that they have overstepped the mark. The Government's response was a minor concession - it backed down on its plans to extend the collection to children as young as two.

In January's school census, parents have the chance to take a stand against the division being sown in our schools by refusing to hand over their children's information, and requesting that data gathered previously be withdrawn.

If enough parents boycott - regardless of where their children were born - the Government won't be able to collect enough data to justify continuing to harvest it. A united action will send a strong message to Ministers bent on embedding division and suspicion in the next generation.

It's frightening to think we can no longer trust our Government to protect the rights of our children and bring our society together - but parents could start the new year by doing something hopeful. If enough people tell them the playground is off-limits to border police, we can begin to reunite our communities.

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