Say this for the government, they are at least consistent. Their contemptible lobbying bill is now followed by their equally contemptible immigration bill. Sometimes you think that if it weren’t for Michael Gove and for the fact that David Cameron isn’t Ed Miliband there’d be few reasons to support this government at all.
And this immigration bill really is contemptible. Politics is often a question of signalling and what this bill signals, alas, is that the government prefers the presumption of guilt to the presumption of innocence. It is a bill that turns ordinary Britons into snitches for central government. A bill that will make life more inconvenient for millions of residents while, almost certainly, achieving few, if any of its aims. A bill, most of all, that sends a message that the United Kingdom is a bitter, paranoid, timorous, small-minded kind of country. The kind of country ruled by the kinds of people who spend their days leaving comments on newspaper websites.
Hurrah for that.
Reasonable measures to reduce the incidence of illegal immigration are one thing; policies which begin from the presumption that everyone and anyone might be an illegal immigrant quite another. This includes you, by the way.
It includes you because the next time you wish to open a bank account or rent a flat or register with a doctor you will have to prove that you are legally resident in this country. (It is also mystifying why a government supposedly keen to make doing business easier insists on making doing business more cumbersome and expensive.)
The bill also presents a picture of Britain under siege. A Britain in which dastardly foreigners are stealing your flat, your health care, your jobs and god knows what besides. A Britain, in other words, far removed from the decent, generally good-natured, easy-going and tolerant place that, most of the time and in most places, it really is.
There are other absurdities too. I see no reason why central government should be involved in the allocation of local authority housing. But this bill apparently includes plans to fine councils “for letting social housing to tenants without a direct connection to a local area”. If there are problems in this area of policy they are for local councils – and local voters – to resolve. It should not be Whitehall’s business.
It is surely telling that the Home Secretary could not muster any hard evidence supporting the proposition that “soft-touch” Britain is an attractive destination for “health tourism”. For good reason too, since many people’s everyday experience of the NHS suggests actually “accessing” health care is often remarkably different. No matter where you are from.
Again, restricting illegal immigration is one thing, even if this bill also encourages people to think there are millions and millions of illegal immigrants spongeing off your largesse (there are some, there are not millions). Treating legal immigrants as potential criminals and parasites is quite another. But that’s what this bill does. And, as I say, it does so with consequences for British-born citizens too since we will all be investigated or have to prove our identity more frequently as a result of this bill than would otherwise have been the case. Do not be surprised if landlords and doctors are disinclined to act as informers or agents of state surveillance. It is hard to see why they should be expected to behave in such a fashion.
Doubtless this is all meant to send a message. The problem with messages, however, is that they are either easily misunderstood or, often and especially when governments are involved, the message received is not the message that was intended to be sent.
Since this is, I think, the eighth immigration bill since 1997 there is precisely no reason to suppose it will be significantly more successful than its predecessors, many of which have attempted to tackle some of the same problems. As is so often the case, doing a better job of enforcing existing laws and provisions would be a better response to an ongoing problem – to the extent it even exists – than passing yet another piece of rebarbative legislation.
Almost all successful western countries have an immigration “problem”. None has found a “solution” to it chiefly because these are problems that can only be managed not solved. Specific regulations on who may – or may not – open a bank account vary from country to country. None are as powerful as the thirst for opportunity and advancement afforded by even the lowest, most difficult, most dangerous existence in these countries. Perhaps, like the War on Drugs, the War on Immigration can be won but only at a price that’s not worth paying. It takes a bazooka to smash a peanut.
Because, in the end, these kinds of measures say less about immigration and immigrants – whether legal or not – than they do about us, the kind of people we are and the kind of country we aspire to be.
This bill, like so many other ministerial pronouncements on immigration, encourages a pinched and suspicious worldview while, simultaneously, being most unlikely to actually achieve its stated goals. Another lose-lose situation then.