Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ at heart of Windrush scandal by Jessica Elgot

MPs say policy to tackle illegal migration applied without consideration for social effects.

Theresa May was two years into her job as home secretary when she made her strategy explicit, telling the Telegraph in 2012 her aim “was to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration”.

The outcry over the treatment of the Windrush generation of migrants in Britain legally, but sometimes without the paperwork to prove it, has exposed the scale of that strategy.

The hostile environment created by new legislation and regulation has meant migrants do not face border officials only when they enter the country for the first time, but as a constant part of daily life. They must prove their immigration status whenever they try to rent a property, open a bank account or access the health services. Landlords and employers become immigration enforcers – or risk hefty fines.

At the Home Office, May was tasked with delivering David Cameron’s election promise that immigration would be reduced to the tens of thousands, a pledge that has still yet to be realised.

May’s decision to repeat the promise in the June general election campaign and her refusal to discount international students from the net migration figures – despite discomfort over both issues from her cabinet colleagues – underlines how much controlling immigration is not an electoral strategy but an ideological driver for the prime minister.

Labour MP David Lammy, who has led the charge in parliament calling for justice for the Windrush families who have been unfairly targeted, suggested the atmosphere of distrust was a feature, not a bug, in the system.

“It is public policy to send ‘go home’ vans around areas of high immigration like my own, to send immigration officers to churches that offer help to refugees, to make concerted efforts to establish immigration tourism as a significant feature of our health service when it is not and to deny access to healthcare for people with cancer,” he said.

“There is also the huge cost involved, it can be £40,000 for one family, constantly having to seek renewed leave to remain.”

Sarah Teather, a former Liberal Democrat MP who was minister for children and families, revealed in 2013 that an internal working group on immigration was initially named the Hostile Environment Working Group, with its name only changed following Lib Dem objections.

Teather, who is now the director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, said: “Theresa May was determined to transform things. She was proud of wanting to generate a really hostile environment.

“The Home Office has a culture of enforcement and disbelief which runs deep into the walls, but it is politically led. It’s a culture from the top, and it has been a bit rich for the home secretary, Amber Rudd, to blame civil servants. When you’ve had a Conservative home secretary that long, you cannot moan when civil servants deliver those policies.”

Apologies to the Windrush generation by Rudd and the prime minister also made clear ministers and officials believed the migrants’ poor treatment to be an anomaly. Home Office guidance says the rules are “a proportionate measure to maintain effective immigration control.”

Sent out to answer media questions about the affair on Tuesday morning, Cabinet Office minister David Lidington denied that May’s tough approach in the Home Office had caused the crisis.

Downing Street said the strategy was intended to target illegal immigrants alone, some of whom had been working in conditions akin to slavery. The prime minister’s spokesman said the rules were “specifically designed to deal with the problem of illegal immigration and issues such as people working illegally and in the black market in conditions that are not suitable for anyone.”

Asked whether the government stood by the hostile environment programme, he said: “The system was put in place to deter illegal immigration and to prevent people who didn’t have the right to be in the country to access public services. It’s in the country’s interests to have a secure immigration system in relation to these cases.”

However, campaigners, MPs and legal experts say the treatment of those Windrush-era Caribbean migrants was a logical consequence of the hostile environment strategy.

Colin Yeo, an immigration barrister from Garden Court chambers, said the strategy had been applied without much consideration of the social consequences.

“We now effectively have in-country immigration controls, carried out by private citizens on each other,” he said. “It’s done through fear of penalties, or it can be done through bureaucracy, the system of checks in healthcare or education which are so onerous.

“Black and ethnic minority people are disproportionally affected too – a landlord will ask for your papers if you look or sound foreign. We know this is happening in practice.”

Nick Timothy, May’s adviser at the Home Office and her joint chief of staff at No 10 until the last election, criticised the treatment, but said: “The solution lies in formalising their status, not abandoning sensible policies to limit illegal immigration.”

Yeo said limited resources were also a factor, meaning the Home Office was unable to carry out large numbers of forced removals and the hostile environment was in part about incentivising people to “self-deport” by making their lives unpleasant.

“That seems to be the rationale, but there is no evidence that is the case and the number of voluntary departures also seems to be falling,” he said.

When the system is enforced, errors can be widespread. A recent report found one in 10 bank account refusals because of immigration checks occurred in error. A Law Society report last week found almost 50% of UK immigration and asylum appeals were upheld, which it said was “clear evidence of serious flaws in the way visa and asylum applications are being dealt with”.

The embarrassment over the Windrush cases is unlikely to herald a long-term change of heart, Yeo said. “It is embedded in law, May would have to repeal her landmark legislation as home secretary. I very much doubt they will reverse course.”

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