Tuesday, October 06, 2020

The Lords takes a stand for decency and humanity on immigration

I'm afraid that I've always assumed that, when Conservatives talk about immigration, what they really mean is allowing white people to flow in and out relatively easily, compared to anyone else. Of course, in more recent years, that former group became more restricted - poorer Europeans weren't very welcome either.

Having made it as difficult as possible for poor people from developing and under-developed countries to come here by means of expensive visas, restricted access to the application process and, in truth, a system which favoured the wealthy, they turned to Europe. There were, as the likes of Farage said, too many foreigners coming here to steal British jobs and British benefits, driving wages down and overwhelming public services.

The fact that we had very low levels of unemployment, and thus thousands and thousands of vacancies, and that the minimum wage had consistently risen by above the rate of inflation, was irrelevant. The fact that freedom of movement in Europe worked both ways was conveniently overlooked. And the fact that the decision not to invest in our public services - increasingly staffed by those very same European nationals - was a choice of Government, was camouflaged by using European citizens as scapegoats.

There was a curious irony that, as Europeans were increasingly discouraged from coming here after the Brexit referendum, the number of non-Europeans coming to live here increased dramatically despite the controls placed upon them. It was almost as though successive Conservative Home Secretaries were determined not to practice what they so loudly preached. And yes, Theresa May, I'm looking at you.

Naturally, with Brexit looming ever closer, there is another Immigration Bill, mean-spirited and petty. And, with a Government majority of 80 in the Commons, made up of a clutch of MPs who are always unhappy about something, but rarely actually rebel (and yes, Theresa May, I'm looking at you again...), there's little prospect of any improvement there.

Thus, any hope for the insertion of some compassion in the legislation is left to the Lords. And, yesterday, the Government were given the sort of kicking that one only wishes could be metaphorically given to much of the Cabinet. Losing one vote is bad enough, but they were three down even before Oral Questions, due to a carry over of votes from the previous session (the online voting system had given up the ghost for the day).

And then the "Dubs amendment" came up for debate. Alf Dubs has been attempted to nail down the Government's declared intention to accept an agreed number of child refugees. Strangely enough, whenever anyone attempted to hold them to that commitment, Ministers always wriggled out from under their promise, and Baroness Williams of Trafford was never going to be an exception to that rule. The problem she has is that nobody really believes anything that the Government say any more, either through a lack of competence or, in some cases, basic integrity. And despite her plea that the amendment be withdrawn, there was no quarter offered and the Government fell to a ninety-four vote defeat.

The settled status scheme for EU national comes without any physical evidence - verification of settled status is only available via a website - and there have been persistent calls for the provision of physical documented proof. Naturally, the Government isn't keen, having learned nothing from the Windrush scandal. Besides, the hostile environment is no accident, it is design (and thank you, Theresa May, for absolutely nothing...). Even the Conservative benches weren't wholly friendly, and whilst Baroness Williams felt that she had total faith in the computer systems and the Home Office (and mustn't that be a lonely hill to stand on?), the Lords disagreed, handing her and Priti Patel a 106-vote defeat. It was particularly pleasing to see a Liberal Democrat Peer, Jonny Oates, moving that one.

I've admitted to being a big fan of Sally Hamwee in the past. Hard-working, thoroughly liberal, and with a keen eye for poor legislation, she is an exemplar of the strengths of the Lords. She had picked up on the indefinite limits on detention for immigration purposes. Now, it seems reasonable not to have an upper limit where it may not be possible for someone who is in the country legally to be deported (albeit that you would never want to detain anyone for long), but there is no such problem for EU/EEA nationals. Sally wanted to restrict the period for which such people could be detained to twenty-eight days. Naturally, the Government merely wanted to assure everyone that, most of the time, people are deported within twenty-eight days.

Ultimately, any immigration system should be efficient and humane. The problem is that the Home Office isn't efficient, and the Government don't really do humane (Moldova? Papua New Guinea?). And, again, the problem of the Government's slipperiness rears its ugly head again, so despite the late hour (it was nearly midnight by the time the Division took place, the Government lost again, by 28 votes.

That also meant that amendments addressing the criteria for, and duration of, initial detention and bail hearings were passed consequentially.

It was a good night for decency...

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