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End of hostilities?

04 May 2018

IT IS rare that politicians are held accountable for sins of omission. After all, there are plenty of the other sort lurking in most political histories. It appears, though, that Amber Rudd’s fall from grace was the result of briefings not attended to, policies not questioned, “appalling” stories not heard. The “hostile environment” developed under her predecessor at the Home Office, now the Prime Minister, was, in a way, at least as brutal — and those who conceived and perpetrated it are as culpable — as anything to do with quotas. Quotas, it could be argued, were a straightforward response to persistent calls from the electorate, encouraged by right-wing politicians and media outlets, for a reduction in immigration. Threatened by UKIP, the Government regularly expressed its plans to reduce net immigration by a certain amount each year, and then passed this target down the line to the Border Agency officials. Despite its flaws, such a policy could be justified, at least in theory. In practice, the higher the target and the more obedient the officials, the less attentive they were to the circumstances of the people they were processing — hence the high proportion of successful appeals by immigrants/refugees who were fortunate enough to secure legal help.

The “hostile environment”, on the other hand, was a thick blanket of obstructionism thrown over anyone unfortunate enough to have to prove their right to remain in Britain with inadequate paperwork. Quotas pushed people from the Windrush generation into the system; the hostile environment they encountered there meant that few have emerge unscathed without costly legal help. Not enough attention has been paid to the injustices caused simply by cuts to the number of civil servants working on applications; but the hostile environment took the incompetence of an overstretched system to a different level, introducing an atmosphere of studied indifference to the suffering caused to those caught up in the system. When this is added to the punitive fee structure, comparisons with the world satirised by Franz Kafka are not out of place. The public was outraged at this unchristian approach to people who were clearly British, faced with removal from the only country that they have known. The challenge now is for the same public to recognise that such Byzantine unkindness is not an acceptable approach to any applicant for citizenship or leave to remain, however tenuous his or her claim. There can be no confidence in a system that has been warped to deal with people inhumanely. Sajid Javid said on his first day as Home Secretary that he did not like the word “hostile”. We trust that he will change more than just the vocabulary.

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