The opening of the 2013-14 session of Parliament, with the Queen’s annual speech in the House of Lords offering an overview of the Government’s legislative programme for the year ahead, has turned out to be rather a muddle on the question of immigration. Immigration was trailed in the media, presumably following a Downing Street press release, as the big issue to watch out for in the Queen’s speech. Yesterday’s news reported that the Queen would announce details of a major crackdown on benefits and healthcare for foreign nationals, particularly EU nationals, in the UK, following David Cameron’s immigration speech on these issues in Ipswich back in March. But by early afternoon, once again, it all appeared to have been somewhat overstated. The Queen’s Speech itself was restricted to breaking the news that we can now expect a new Immigration Bill over the coming year (probably in the autumn) that will ‘further reform Britain’s immigration system’ – with no specific reference to EU migration, welfare benefits or social housing. A Home Office briefing reports that the three main goals of the Bill will be: ‘stopping immigrants accessing services they are not entitled to; making it easier to remove people from the UK and harder for people to prolong their stay with spurious appeals; and specifying that foreign nationals who commit serious crimes shall, except in extraordinary circumstances, be deported’. Overall, the measures outlined for inclusion in the Immigration Bill seem primarily concerned with increasing immigration checking responsibilities among landlords, employers and health services. According to the briefing, the Bill will include: A new requirement for private landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants. This would include the nearly 2 million buy-to-let property owners in the UK who would be required to check the papers of their tenants in order to ensure their right to be in the UK. This approach has already been criticised by housing charities and landlords associations, who have protested that landlords should not be given the responsibilities of immigration officers and questioned how this would work in practice. Interviewed this morning, health secretary Jeremy Hunt acknowledged that government does not yet have the answers to those questions. What seems clear is that the wider problems relating to exploitative landlords who pack legally and irregularly resident migrants into overpriced houses of multiple occupation or ‘beds in sheds’ would not be addressed by this new set of requirements. Introduction of ‘tough action’ against employers of irregular migrants, including higher fines. Employers have had increased responsibility for the immigration status of their workers since the introduction of the new civil penalty system in 2008. This means that ‘tough action’ has already been in place, with up to £10,000 fines levied against employers of irregular migrants who haven’t carried out the required document checks. MRN’s view, based on accounts from trades unions and workers associations, is that giving employers immigration responsibilities has thus far often resulted in confusion among employers, discrimination against minority workers, and persecution of many small ethnic businesses by the immigration authorities. How Government would step up action against employers is as yet unknown. Regulation of migrant access to the NHS, ‘ensuring that temporary migrants make a contribution’. Interviewed today, business secretary Vince Cable reported that different policy options in this area are still on the table for consideration. A statement by Jeremy Hunt in Parliament on this matter back in March reported that Government plans to hold a consultation with medical professionals to consider the options, and mentioned that Government is considering introducing a prepayment or insurance requirement for temporary visitors to pay for NHS health care, as well as increasing screening for patient eligibility. We know that this has been met with real concern among health professionals who are concerned about the impacts of measures which increase immigration control responsibilities within the NHS for both migrants and on the health service. In addition, we can expect efforts to prevent irregular migrants from obtaining UK driving licences; new measures on enforcement and appeals including restricting the right of appeal to ‘the most important’ immigration issues and new provisions to ‘give the full force of legislation’ to the changes to Article 8 consideration introduced by home secretary Theresa May last year. All this should generate plenty more debate about the potential impacts of the measures outlined for inclusion in the Bill on migrants’ rights in the UK, particularly in terms of the costs of giving large numbers of people with little expertise in immigration documentation new checking responsibilities. And it leaves question marks firmly in place over how Government now intends to introduce any new changes in relation to EU migrants’ access to social welfare and housing in the UK ahead of January 2014. Expect more on all these issues in due course.
From MRN- Ruth Grove White