Creating ‘a hostile environment’ is a heartless, cold and ruthless approach to public policy
Windrush, the rape clause, payment of benefits in cases of domestic abuse – there was a depressingly dismal thread running through last week’s questions to the prime minister, and it was a cold-blooded adherence to rules.
It was about putting systems before people and designing government policies hard-wired to be cruel, affording little or no forgiveness for the complications, nuances and realities of people’s everyday lives.
And after a week, that felt like every hour brought fresh revelations of the callous disregard shown to the weak, the vulnerable and the simply, disempowered. The SNP’s Ian Blackford was right to ask Theresa May: “What kind of country do we live in?”
His question, more of a heartfelt plea, only served to underline the wretchedness of the day, but even as the Labour leader tried to snatch the moral high ground over Theresa May’s inherently racist immigration policies, the ugly spectre of anti-Semitism still hung over him.
And then May blamed others. Windrush wasn’t her fault; it was under a Labour government that landing cards had been destroyed. But that was a red-herring and not entirely true. It showed her up as a coward and was an insult to those who had travelled to Britain so many years ago to build their lives as British citizens and who were then rewarded with suspicion, accusation, the denial of public services and the threat of deportation.
What kind of country do we live in? Indeed.
And just at a pivotal point in our history, when Brexit demands that we reach out to the rest of the world and show by example that we are a country worth doing business with, we reveal our truly nasty side.
What does it say to people living in other parts of the world that we are prepared to bomb a country but then not take in its children, that we design immigration policies that suck the life out of incomers and then tell them they have no right to stay, that we welcome Commonwealth leaders to our shores to celebrate our longstanding relationships and then refuse to engage in something as fundamental as whether their people, now our people, get to be called British?
And how then do we convince worried EU immigrants to trust us when we say that their status is secure after Brexit?
How dare we use and abuse and then look for trust.
When you fundamentally approach immigration as a problem – and see its resolution in terms of numbers that need to be cut – then you embed the notion that all immigrants are bad and need to be ‘dealt with’.
And when you are the person that strikes the first match that starts the slow burn on the concept of ‘hostility’ as a policy, and you ask landlords, doctors, teachers and banks to act as gatekeepers in implementing it, and the ensuing divisiveness, inevitably, sparks suspicion and stokes the embers of racism, then you can’t stand back and plead ignorance when that fire starts to burn out of control.
“If you lay down with dogs, you will get fleas!” warned an impassioned David Lammy MP, in a moving speech in the House of Commons about the emerging Windrush scandal.
And while he was right, that tackling immigration in such a dumb-ass way has consequences, it has also been Theresa May’s most defining attribute.
She has approached the issue with a single-minded brutality that has been focused, solely, on getting numbers down. She was behind the vans that toured towns, like a Vulgarian childcatcher, telling immigrants to go home. She presided over the now illegal practice of turfing rough-sleeping EU migrants out of the country. She removed housing benefit and an immediate accessibility to job seekers’ allowance for EEA migrants, and she introduced a policy of deport first and appeal later.
She became a conveyer belt for Daily Mail headlines, even when she was wrong, like when she said the courts could not deport an illegal immigrant because he had a cat.
Former ministerial colleagues described the Home Office approach to immigration under her leadership as akin to that of Nazi Germany, and she has carried that poisonous mindset, previously limited to right-wing extremes, all the way to Downing Street.
The treatment of the Windrush immigrants and their families has, rightly, caught the public eye because it is so blatantly wrong. But it is just a taste of what other immigrants deal with.
Windrush isn’t an accidental consequence of a policy designed to catch illegal immigrants. It was an inevitable consequence of a brutal and fundamentalist approach to immigration.
Creating ‘a hostile environment’ is a heartless, cold and ruthless approach to public policy and is synonymous with May. She has carried that toxic culture from the Home Office and allowed it to run through other government departments like an infection. What other explanation can be used to comprehend something like the ‘rape clause’ becoming acceptable, desirable, or as Esther McVey, described it, “a double support”?
No…no…no. If you design a system that means creating an exemption for women that have conceived a child following rape, then you need to take a step back and ask whether the system is right, not how you fit people into it.
This is a month of important anniversaries: 50 years on from Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, 25 years on since the murder of Stephen Lawrence and one year on from the introduction of the two-child cap on tax credits which brought in the ‘rape clause’.
It was Theresa May, as Conservative Party chairman in 2002, who said it needed to rid itself of being the nasty party. But if this last week has been anything to go by, and as she might say, ‘nothing has changed, nothing has changed…’