By Rachel Robinson
Today MPs face a choice over what type of country they want Britain to be. One where division, suspicion and political point-scoring take precedence over compassion, empathy and basic respect for individual human dignity, or one that rejects intolerance and continues our proud tradition of offering sanctuary and help to people most in need.
This afternoon, the Commons decides whether to accept or reject a handful of crucially important changes made by the Lords to the Government’s Immigration Bill – amendments which have introduced a glimmer of basic decency into this otherwise shameful piece of legislation.
This Bill is among the cruelest and most divisive to pass through Parliament in recent years. Thankfully, when Peers had the chance to insert some desperately needed compassion earlier this month, they took it.
They voted by a large margin to let asylum seekers work if the Home Office fails to determine their claims in its target time of six months – allowing them to provide for themselves and contribute to our economy.
They voted to help overseas domestic workers escape abuse and exploitation by allowing them to change employer while in the UK, and to entirely ban the detention of pregnant women.
And they voted to take immediate action to welcome 3,000 unaccompanied asylum seeking children who have already made it to Europe’s shores. In doing so, they shamed the Government and cast an unflattering spotlight on an immigration agenda characterised not just by indifference to human suffering, but by a willingness to sow division, suspicion and discrimination in all walks of British life.
The Home Secretary Theresa May talks of immigration damaging 'social cohesion' – but one look at Home Office bills passing through Parliament reveals just how disingenuous those words are. Her department seems to be doing everything in its power to tear the fabric of our society to shreds.
In drafting the Immigration Bill, ministers have happily admitted their desire to create a 'hostile environment'. As well as making life as difficult as possible for failed asylum seekers, it combines an escalation of 'right to rent' immigration check obligations on landlords – already proven to have increased discrimination – with a new criminal offence of 'driving whilst illegal', destined to increase the already disproportionately high numbers of black and ethnic minority road users stopped by police.
These draconian measures, ripe for abuse and misuse, will absolutely make Britain a hostile place. Not just for migrants, but for all of us – with ethnic minorities and those with foreign-sounding names or accents hit hardest.
This outsourcing of immigration control, with a wide range of public bodies and private citizens newly required to carry out work traditionally (and rightly) done by immigration officials, is a hallmark of Theresa May’s time in office.
Employers, bank staff, healthcare professionals, lawyers, clergy, university employees and landlords all now have some responsibility to police Britain’s borders from the inside. With a cursory assessment of nationality, these ordinary members of the public with no specific experience of the immigration system can bar desperate people from accessing basic services.
New offences like 'driving whilst illegal' turn the police into immigration officers – a stark reversal of decades of distancing police from border control to improve police-community relations. Baroness Doreen Lawrence and the National Black Police Association have spoken out about the risks of conflating these roles.
Immigration officers themselves have gained increasingly police-like powers, with a dramatic shift toward heavy-handed raids on residences and businesses and speculative street operations – rolled out alongside innovations such as the infamous 'Go Home' vans. In a particularly grim moment, we even saw the Prime Minister and Home Secretary posing for the cameras in somebody's front room following a PR-stunt-come-raid.
The Immigration Bill goes even further however, handing immigration officials yet more police-like search and seizure powers. And the thread runs through other new legislation too.
As we learned only this month, immigration officers were quietly given powers to access people’s phones and computers years ago. Now the Investigatory Powers Bill seeks to make intercepting communications from immigration detention centres routine.
Meanwhile, the Policing and Crime Bill would force people to confirm their nationality upon arrest and in court. The vast majority of criminal offences have nothing to do with immigration, but these measures will play to people's prejudices, damage police-community relations and compromise fair trials.
It also gives police the power to take ships found in English and Welsh waters anywhere else in the world – a barely-disguised attempt to flout our international obligations, by pushing asylum seekers back to countries with dismal human rights records and failing asylum systems.
Even this Government seems to realise that out-and-out nastiness won't sit too well with the British public in the end. In recent days, it's been keen to draw attention to a number of 'concessions'. But we mustn’t be fooled.
James Brokenshire's announcement on the resettlement of children currently living in the Middle East and North Africa fails to go beyond separate proposals announced in January of this year – and does nothing to protect the children living in desperate squalor within Europe’s borders. And Theresa May's decision to limit the detention of pregnant women to a week ignores UN guidelines and recommendations from experts and campaigners that we urgently need a total ban.
These headline-friendly announcements will not achieve what the Lords' amendments could. They are smoke and mirrors, designed to dampen an absolutely justified wave of public outrage and condemnation if MPs seek to reject the Lords’ changes today.
This Government is bent on building a Britain characterised by division. Worse still it is determined to deny even the most basic protections to vulnerable migrants in this country or to refugee children on its doorstep. For MPs to reject the Lords' efforts to swim against that toxic tide, would speak volumes about our values as a nation. Let's hope they make the right choice.
Rachel Robinson is a policy officer at Liberty.
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.