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Britain's immigration system 'too open to error', MPs warn

'Hostile environment' policies are 'unclear' and lead to too many incidents where people are threatened with deportation based on 'inaccurate and untested' information, report finds

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Monday 15 January 2018 01:18 GMT
Home Affairs Select Committee urge recent high-profile reports of the Home Office wrongly threatening to deport people could not only be deeply damaging and distressing to those involved, but could also “undermine the credibility of the whole system”
Home Affairs Select Committee urge recent high-profile reports of the Home Office wrongly threatening to deport people could not only be deeply damaging and distressing to those involved, but could also “undermine the credibility of the whole system” (PA)

Government measures of reducing illegal immigration undermine credibility in the system due to high instances of inaccuracies and error, an influential group of MPs has warned.

"Hostile environment" policies designed in a bid to reduce illegal immigration are “unclear” and have seen too many people threatened with deportation based on “inaccurate and untested” information, according to a new report from the Home Affairs Select Committee.

The MPs urged that recent high-profile reports of the Home Office wrongly threatening to deport people could not only be deeply damaging and distressing to those involved, but could also “undermine the credibility of the whole system”.

Such reports include a case where letters were wrongly sent to EU nationals stating that they were set to be deported from the UK, which prompted the Home Office to “urgently” look into why they were mistakenly sent out.

The report urges that the Government should not rely on its hostile environment policy as a “panacea for enforcement and building confidence”, adding: “We are concerned that the policy is unclear and, in some instances, too open to interpretation and inadvertent error.

“Not only can these errors be deeply damaging and distressing to those involved—as with letters being sent to EU nationals about their right to live in the UK—they also undermine the credibility of the system.

“This is particularly worrying in advance of the need to register EU nationals in preparation for Brexit.”

The hostile environment policy includes measures to limit access to work, housing, healthcare, and bank accounts, to revoke driving licences and to reduce and restrict rights of appeal against Home Office decisions.

The majority of these proposals became law via the Immigration Act 2014, and have since been tightened or expanded under the Immigration Act 2016.

A major concern raised by MPs was that the Home Office did not have in place measurements to evaluate the effectiveness of the hostile environment provisions, and that there had been a “failure” to understand the effects of the policy.

In the latest measure introduced as part of the policy, banks and building societies have been required to check 70 million current accounts each quarter.

But concern has been raised over the fact that an inspection by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) of data provided by the Home Office to banks last year found 10 per cent of the 169 cases inspected had incorrectly been included on the list of “disqualified persons”.

More than 60 MPs, academics and campaign groups wrote an open letter to the Home Secretary last month urging the Government to halt the “inhumane” policy, citing the Home Office's “poor track record” of dealing with complaints and appeals in a timely manner.

People with a right to live in the UK have also been caught up in the hostile environment policy as landlords and employers have also sought to minimise perceived risk to themselves.

A recent survey by the Residential Landlords’ Association (RLA) sound that 42 per cent of respondents said they were less likely to rent to people who do not have a British passport because they feared criminal sanctions if they made a mistake under the legislation.

There are reports of employers restricting access to job vacancies, for example by insisting that all non-EU applicants provide a biometric residence permit – despite this only applying to recent arrivals, or by limiting the vacancy to applicants with British passports – which is illegal.

The wide-ranging report also noted that anxiety about illegal immigration has been allowed to “grow unchecked” because of a shortage of official information on the scale of the problem, with the lack of data perceived as the Government showing “indifference” towards an issue of “high public interest”.

The assessment made a string of recommendations, including an annual report setting out a three-year, a rolling plan for migration, a new “framework of targets” to replace the Government's net migration target and an immigration system which treats different skills differently.

It also recommended ministers introduce a more proactive approach to challenging “myths and inaccuracies” about immigration, no diminution of the UK's approach to international humanitarian obligations and the development of a national integration strategy.

A report submitted as evidence to the Committee, also published today (Monday), reveals high-profile failures have eroded public trust in the Government to control immigration.

Based on the biggest ever public consultation on immigration, the study, compiled by think tank British Future and campaign group HOPE not hate, found a lack of public trust in the Home Office's delivery of immigration policy.

Most of those who took part in the project are described as “balancers”, who see both the pressures and gains of immigration.

Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, Rt Hon Yvette Cooper MP urged that the Government has a responsibility to build “consensus and confidence on immigration” rather than allowing it to be a “divisive debate.”

She added: “What's striking is that there is considerable common ground in contrast to the polarisation we too often hear in national debates. But we need a much more open and honest debate, with sensible reforms to address people’s concerns.

“The net migration target isn’t working to build confidence and it treats all migration as the same. That’s why it should be replaced by a different framework of targets and controls.

“As long as there are so many errors and so many problems with enforcement, people won't have confidence that the system is either fair or robust.

“Most people think immigration is important for Britain, but they want to know that the system is under control, that people are contributing to this country and that communities and public services are benefiting rather than facing pressures.

“And crucially they have different attitudes to different kinds of migration. We believe people should be working together to build consensus on the benefits and address concerns about problems on immigration.”

A Home Office spokesman said: “The British people sent a very clear message in the EU referendum: they want more control of immigration and our borders. That is why we are committed to reducing net migration to sustainable levels.

”Net migration figures have fallen steadily over the past four quarters and after we leave the EU, we will put in place an immigration system which works in the best interests of the whole of the UK.

“In order to do this, we will engage with a wide-range of stakeholders. As part of this work, we have asked the independent Migration Advisory Committee to assess the economic and social impact of EU citizens in all parts of the UK.”

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