The hostile environment continued
Two years ago Sajid Javid, newly appointed home secretary after the Windrush scandal, declared an end to the phrase ‘hostile environment’. It was an ‘unhelpful’ form of words, he told Parliament, which ‘doesn’t represent our values as a country’. The phrase, which describes the bureaucratic obstacles conceived in 2012 to make life in the UK impossible for unwanted immigrants, may have disappeared from the official lexicon, but the policies remain, even during a pandemic.
In mid-April, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, declined a request from opposition MPs to suspend a rule that charges non-EU patients 150 per cent of the cost of their treatment, and requires hospital staff to ask them for ID and share their data with other government departments.
On 21 April, the Court of Appeal found that the ‘right to rent’ scheme, which compels landlords to ask prospective tenants for proof they have permission to live in the UK, caused indirect discrimination by encouraging landlords not to rent properties to people who look or sound ‘foreign’. But the scheme was legal, the court ruled, and could continue.
Towards the end of the month, Javid’s successor, Priti Patel, refused to lift the ‘no recourse to public funds’ status that bans some immigrants, including failed asylum-seekers and people without visas, from accessing most social security benefits.
The government’s approach has been to offer minor concessions while trying to preserve the existing system. Doctors, nurses and some other NHS staff from overseas will be given automatic extensions to their visas, but other frontline workers, for the moment, will not. People who would normally be charged to use the NHS will be exempt if their treatment is related to Covid-19. Local councils have been given extra funds and told to let people access food banks and emergency housing even if they wouldn’t normally be allowed to.
These half-measures may not be enough to ensure people stay safe and healthy. Durga Sivasathiaseelan, a GP who works with Doctors of the World, points out that ‘hostile environment’ policies in the NHS have scared away undocumented migrants – and people with valid immigration status – from seeking medical help. Covid-19 treatment is exempt from charges but pre-existing conditions are not, and there is no guarantee about what officials will or won’t do with patient data.
There is a lack of clarity, too, about the help councils are supposed to offer, or what happens to the details of people who approach them: instead of producing a single set of guidelines about its policies during the pandemic, the Home Office has updated its online information piecemeal. Liberty have already discovered a case of a homeless man being forced to sleep on London buses because he was wrongly told his immigration status made him ineligible for housing.
Successive UK governments have built a harsh and complex system of immigration rules, many of which are predicated on the false assumption that the people who fall foul of them must be either freeloaders or criminals. Other countries have taken bolder and more generous steps: Spain has temporarily released all inmates from immigration detention; Portugal, for the duration of the pandemic, has given all immigrants full residency rights. The UK system doesn’t have to be the way it is.