Listening to Theresa May announcing the Home Office's new Immigration Bill on the Today programme last week was a dispiriting and desultory experience.
Whenever its contents were called into question, her voice assumed the same taut note of barely-suppressed hysteria and desperation that the hapless Nicola Murray regularly demonstrates in The Thick of It when trying to present another useless, nonsensical and incoherent policy.
But there is nothing comical about May's bill. It's essential aim, says Immigration Minister Mark Harper, is to "stop migrants abusing public services to which they are not entitled, reduce the pull factors which draw illegal immigrants to the UK and make it easier to remove people who should not be here."
The bill's provisions include proposals to stop "illegal immigrants" having bank accounts, renting flats, and 'abusing' health services. It intends to make it more difficult for "foreign criminals" to appeal against deportations by deporting them first and obliging them to make their appeals from wherever they are sent. It also intends to make landlords confirm the immigration status of their prospective tenants, and oblige banks to do same with their customers.
All this is supposedly motivated by a desire for "fairness", says May. It is nothing of the kind. It is a recipe for racial and social exclusion, that will seriously hurt people whose 'illegality' is due to all kinds of complex reasons that the government doesn't even begin to understand or care about, many of whom are already at the bottom of the social pyramid.
All over the country, NGOs and charities working with asylum seekers and refugees are being inundated with cases of destitute men and women whose asylum claims have been rejected or fallen through the administrative machinery, who are living on the street, some of whom without any money at all and depend only on the food parcels and drop in centres provided by volunteers.
Many "illegal migrants" who are "abusing the labour market", as the Home Office puts it, are working in conditions that British workers would not accept for a mili-second. Yet according to the government we are supposed to regard all these people as privileged intruders, deviously taking "our" jobs, flats and "abusing" our health services by going to a doctor or a hospital if they are sick.
All this is intended, says the Home Office, to "make the UK the least attractive country for illegal immigrants." That isn't nearly as noble an aspiration as the government thinks it is.
Substitute the word "illegal immigrant" for "Jew" or "Negro" and it really doesn't look very pretty. But it does give a better impression of how this bill will work in practice, if doctors and hospitals refuse to treat "people with no right to be here"; if landlords start turning people away or maybe putting up signs that say 'no illegal immigrants; if the UK becomes a place where anyone with a foreign accent or a dark skin must be spied on and checked and held in suspicion, and stripped of the most elementary human rights to medical treatment or a roof over their heads.
There's nothing fair about any of this. Anymore than it's fair to deport "foreign criminals" who may have lived in the UK since they were kids, and have already served a prison sentence for the crime they committed, or making it more difficult for them to appeal against their deportations. Last year I met an Afghan in Calais with a thick Northern accent who had been living in Bradford since he was a child.
He was married with two children, but he had done time for GBH after getting in a fight, so the government deported him back to Afghanistan when his sentence was over.
He had managed to make it back "illegally", but he had been caught and deported a second time. When I met him he had been trying to get back to the UK 'illegally' yet again, but his spirit was broken. He'd been in Calais too long and he told me he was going to go back to Afghanistan, regardless of the fact that he might never see his kids again.
So please let's not talk about fairness or justice here. Because what this bill is about is populism and demagoguery. Asked why she was trying to stop "benefit tourism" when the evidence of this phenomenon suggested that it was infinitesimal, May simply dodged the question, and kept repeating the same gormless mantra "Most people think this is fair".
When it was pointed out to her that refusing people health care might actually present a health risk to the public, she replied in the same vein. At the suggestion that her bill might actually cost more to the taxpayer than the money it is supposedly intended to save, she responded with more blather.
On one hand she doesn't have any choice but to react this way. Because the truth is that the government doesn't know any more about the numbers of 'benefit tourists' than it does about the numbers of badgers, or Rumanian and Bulgarian migrants thinking of coming to the UK.
The sole purpose of this appalling bill is to reap political benefits for the coalition - and the Tory party in particular. It's a sop to the voters who are thinking of voting for Ukip intended to make the Tories look 'tough on immigration' - and a convenient diversion from the increasingly horrendous consequences of the government's cuts program.
And the result is a scandalously vicious, vindictive and mean-spirited piece of legislation, even by the coalition's standards, that will achieve nothing except to make this country an even nastier place than they have already made it.
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