Dawn Foster reported recently that 196 MPs are now landlords, a rise of a quarter since the last parliament. Nearly 40 per cent of Tory MPs are letting out properties; more than 20 per cent of Labour MPs are. From 1 February they will be obliged to check the immigration status of their tenants, in line with the government’s Right to Rent scheme, which means we won’t have long to wait for the next phony immigration scandal. (Remember when Mark Harper, the minister behind the ‘Go Home’ vans, resigned after being caught employing an illegal immigrant as a cleaner in 2014? She was arrested at her daughter’s wedding, taken to Yarl’s Wood and two weeks later sent back to Colombia. Harper is now chief whip.)
Landlords can be fined up to £3000 if they’re found to be renting to illegal immigrants; once the Tories pass the Immigration Bill 2015-16 (Right to Rent was part of the 2014 Act), repeat offenders will face up to five years in prison. The government’s code of practice for landlords runs to 10,000 words and includes flow diagrams. Why risk getting on the wrong side of it? A by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants found that 27 per cent of landlords were reluctant to engage with prospective tenants who had foreign-sounding accents or names. (A Home Office evaluation of the trial scheme in the West Midlands found instances of discrimination, but suggested that ‘on the whole these instances were not impacting on BME shoppers’ access to rental accommodation’.)
Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, has called Right to Rent ‘the worst kind of ineffectual, dog whistle politics’. It’s hard to argue with that, but he might want to come up with a new invective: he recently used the same expression to describe David Cameron’s preoccupation with Muslim women when speaking about new rules on English language skills for immigrants (people who come into the country on a spousal visa will have to take an English test after two and a half years).
Here are a few other things that are going to happen to immigration policy in the UK this year. From April, any non-EU citizen earning below £35,000 after five years of work will be denied indefinite leave to remain. (A hint of how that might be enforced came on 17 January, when Dr Paul Hamilton, an American Shakespeare scholar, discovered that his application for further leave to remain had been rejected when immigration officials arrested him at his home in Stratford-upon-Avon and sent him to Morton Hall immigration removal centre, where he remains today.) If the 2015-16 bill becomes law, the home secretary will be allowed to overrule independent first-tier tribunal decisions on bail conditions. Asylum seekers whose applications are denied, and who face the prospect of destitution, will no longer be entitled to government support unless they face a ‘genuine obstacle’ to leaving the UK, though what would count as a ‘genuine obstacle’ isn’t specified. The bill will also criminalise illegal work in the UK for the first time, and introduce unlimited fines so that wages can be seized as the ‘proceeds of crime’.
The aim of these policies is, first, to bring net migration down to the tens of thousands (a fantasy) and, second, to create ‘a hostile environment for illegal immigrants’. But that doesn’t explain the £200 annual charge that legal immigrants now have to pay to use the NHS (in addition to national insurance) or the 25 per cent hike in visa fees that are coming in the 2015-16 bill. Those must come down to the ‘actuarial passion’, as Jeremy Harding put it, with which Britain calculates whether a migrant will be a net asset or a net drain. Hannah Witty, the Home Office’s acting director of finance, told the Migrants’ Rights Network that the rise in visa fees was designed to ensure that ‘the system is self-funded by those who access services’ – which is, quite apart from immigration policy, the wider government project.