All new Secretaries of State have the opportunity to put their own stamp on the job, and to shift direction compared to their predecessor. Sajid Javid, moving into the Home Office unexpectedly following Amber Rudd’s resignation, has both the personal space and the political imperative to do just that: public outrage over the treatment of the ‘Windrush generation’, controversy over the existence or non-existence of removals targets and the impact of the ‘hostile environment’ policy are each part of what forced Rudd out.
Even before getting the job, Javid was already signalling a difference in approach from that of Rudd and May, telling the Sunday Telegraph, ‘When I heard about the Windrush issue I thought that could be my mum, it could be my dad, it could be my uncle, it could be me.’ And on his first day in office, responding to a question in the Commons from Labour’s Stephen Doughty about the ‘hostile environment’, he started to move away from the language of his predecessors, saying, ‘hostile is not a term that I am going to use. It is a compliant environment. I do not like the term hostile. The terminology is incorrect and that phrase is unhelpful, and its use does not represent our values as a country.’
This shift in language is welcome, and Javid’s willingness to repudiate it on the basis of its incompatibility with British values is a striking challenge not just to Amber Rudd but to the Prime Minister herself, and to her understanding of the culture of the country she leads. But ‘hostile environment’ is not just a phrase: it is a set of policies designed to make life as difficult as possible for those in the country illegally, and with huge knock-on effects on legal migrants, people wrongly suspected of being here illegally, and those who come into contact with them. The real test of Javid’s approach will not be about language, it will be about policy.
The Government’s attempts to prevent illegal immigrants from accessing non-emergency healthcare, getting a job or a bank account, or from renting a flat – in short, from living a normal life in the UK – has generated vast quantities of bureaucracy. An audit carried out by Global Future identified well over 1,000 pages of official guidance for employers, landlords, bank staff, NHS staff and many others to read, understand and take into account. All of these people and more are now responsible for enforcing immigration policy – and are subject to new legal penalties up to and including fines and prison sentences if they fail to carry out these new duties properly.
NHS staff need to read 118 pages of guidance on implementing overseas visa charging restrictions. Landlords who want to rent out accommodation have been provided with 103 pages of guidance, spread across five different documents. Employers have almost 500 pages of guidance to read – including 38 pages of ‘frequently asked questions’. If so many questions about your policy are asked frequently that answering them takes 38 pages, then it’s safe to say that you may have made it a bit too complicated.
Making more and more people, many of them private citizens with no training, responsible for enforcing immigration policy, and expecting them to read hundreds of pages of official bureaucratic documents, increases the risk that mistakes will be made – either denying accommodation, jobs and public services to people who need them, or putting citizens into legal trouble.
And it makes it more likely that some will simply avoid providing services to people who look as if they may be immigrants, to avoid the bureaucratic burden. A survey by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants found that 44% of landlords say they are less likely to let to people who ‘appear to be immigrants’. As we saw with the Windrush scandal, even trained Home Office officials make life-altering mistakes when dealing with people they suspect to be illegal immigrants – so expecting ordinary members of the public to get the law right is unrealistic and unfair.
As a former Business Secretary, Sajid Javid has spoken out in the past against the burden of red tape on business. In 2016, announcing measures aimed at helping to cut £10billion of red tape, he pointed out that ‘It’s very easy for a Whitehall bureaucrat to come up with an idea that looks great on paper and, with the stroke of a pen, place a huge extra burden on businesses.’ Well, his new department has been among the worst offenders. But he is now in a perfect position to change that.
‘Hostile environment’ is more than a phrase. It is an approach to immigration that turns ordinary citizens into immigration officers. It turns not just those who have come to this country from abroad, but anyone from a visible ethnic minority or with a foreign-sounding name, into an object of suspicion when they try to access vital services. And it places an undue bureaucratic burden on people who are simply trying to do their jobs. If Sajid Javid wants to put his stamp on the Home Office, he can start by scrapping the ‘hostile environment’ altogether.
Peter Starkings is the Managing Director of Global Future, an independent think tank that makes the case for immigration, freedom of movement and building an open and vibrant Britain