We must change the conversation on immigration, argues Christabel Cooper
When Amber Rudd resigned as Home Secretary on Sunday night it seemed – for a moment – that ‘normal’ politics had resumed. That is, the kind of politics where a major national scandal, together with weeks of forensic harrying by well-informed and persistent opposition members of parliament had forced a senior cabinet minister to step down. The obvious injustice of denying housing, employment and healthcare to the British children of the Windrush generation who had contributed to this country for decades, was so overwhelming that even Theresa May’s usual supporters in the right-wing press turned on her.
The government’s response has been to insist that the scandal was the result of Home Office incompetence in relation to one small group of people, and had nothing to do with the overall ‘hostile environment’ policy designed to deter illegal immigrants. Rudd’s departure lends credibility to this narrative; if the home secretary has resigned, then it must have been her fault this happened (never mind that the actual resigning matter was the fact she misled MPs rather than her incompetence).
But we all know that the ultimate architect of the ‘hostile environment’ was May herself, who brought in the policy during her lengthy time at the Home Office. Following the long line of other very senior government ministers, who have clung onto careers which they should have been forced to relinquish a long time ago, the prime minister remains (for now) in place. The danger is that Amber Rudd’s resignation may simply act to cauterise the wound, stopping the damage from the Windrush scandal touching Theresa May, and distracting attention away from her flagship policy – which has been rebranded as the ‘compliant environment’ but nonetheless remains in place.
And whilst the government has pledged to specifically help the Windrush children, they are not the only people unfairly punished by May’s policies. There will be many other non-British migrants who are legally entitled to live and work in Britain, but have lost jobs, houses and potentially life-saving access to health services because of their inability to produce to compendious documentation to prove their status. Beyond this, there will be indirect victims – British citizens or legal migrants with “’foreign-sounding’ names, who landlords or employers turn away because they do not want to take any risks.
The prime minister’s claim that it was not foreseeable that her policies would lead to this kind of injustice, is ludicrous. It would be like changing the judicial system so that anyone charged with a crime is automatically declared guilty unless they can personally gather enough evidence to irrefutably prove that they are innocent. And then saying it was unforeseeable that thousands of people end up being wrongfully convicted.
But May and her supporters seem to assume that by default, all migrants (including legal ones) are guilty of something, even if only inadvertently. Decades of near-silence from successive governments on the full benefits of immigration have opened the way for misleading claims about the damage done by migrants to become accepted as fact. It is widely believed that foreigners are automatically prioritised for social housing (they are not), that they disproportionately receive benefits (they do not), and that they bring down wages. This last claim has been taken as such gospel truth that politicians of all stripes now repeat it, despite there being scant evidence to back this up – even for low-skilled jobs. When talking to people who are broadly hostile to immigration they will often be complimentary about individual migrants that they know personally or have worked with, but are convinced that these ‘good immigrants’ are the exception and not the rule – when in fact they are more typical than they have been led to believe.
This is not to say that immigration – both legal and illegal – is unproblematic. But for the good of everyone in Britain, we should develop policy in this area using evidence and honesty, not folklore and suspicion. If ever there was a moment for Labour to decisively move the conversation in a more positive direction it is surely now, whilst sympathy for the Windrush children is still strong, and opinion polls show that attitudes towards migrants are generally becoming less, rather than more hostile. For instance it may be that the idea of ID cards should be revisited, or at least some form of registration system that applies to all legal residents in the United Kingdom, regardless of country of origin.
In the end, people from other countries are no different to anyone else. Like the British-born, some among their number deliberately do intend to manipulate the system, but most want to work and to contribute. Time and again, both as Home Secretary and prime minister (remember the ‘citizens of nowhere’ speech a year and a half ago), May has shown little sign that she appreciates this. Rudd’s resignation should not distract from the wider need to put forward a positive case for immigration, together with policies that benefit both migrants and the UK – as opposed to the prime minister’s policies which do neither.
Christabel Cooper is a member of the Progress strategy board and councillor for Fulham Reach. She tweets @ChristabelCoops
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