The progress of another punitive Bill which strips away legal protection from migrants and will increase homelessness, ill health and destitution, seems for now to have tri-partisan support.
The Immigration Bill finished its passage through the House of Commons on 30 January 2014. The third reading ought to have been a last chance for MPs to consider seriously the devastating impact of the removal of the right to appeal wrong immigration decisions, the enormous accretion of powers to the executive, without whose consent judges may not grant bail in certain circumstances, or consider new grounds of appeal; the transformation of residential landlords into immigration enforcers, the denial of all shelter to those without papers. And principled opposition to the Bill, and particularly to the removal of appeal rights, the exclusion of undocumented migrants from the rental market, the introduction of policing duties for landlords and the extension of charges for NHS care, has poured in to the Bill’s parliamentary scrutiny committee from professional associations, housing charities and experts.
However, the level of scrutiny given to these careful, considered and reasoned arguments was derisory, and the level of parliamentary opposition pathetic. A small group of MPs, with Jeremy Corbyn, Caroline Lucas and Sarah Teather at its core, fought doggedly but in vain to rouse their fellows. Instead, the third reading became a battle among the wings of the Tory party as to which could be the toughest and which of the Right’s whipping-boys would be the targets – the foreign criminals, the suspected terrorists or the Romanian and Bulgarian ‘scroungers’. Provisions which turn migrants into outlaws, without remedies against illegal decisions and excluded from fundamental rights of shelter and health care, were nodded through.
Appeals system eviscerated
The Bill gets rid of all appeals against immigration decisions except for decisions to refuse asylum or humanitarian protection, or to refuse a human rights claim. Wrongful refusal of a visa, or of leave to remain for work or study, of settlement, of a certificate of entitlement, a wrongful decision to remove someone from the country as an illegal entrant or to deport them, will no longer attract a right of appeal. There will be instead a ‘robust’ internal administrative review. Such internal reviews, which currently precede all appeals, have not prevented nearly half of Home Office decisions refusing visas for work, and nearly one-third of deportation decisions, being overturned on appeal. And it does not inspire confidence to hear that Home Office staff are given incentives such as gift vouchers for successful defence of appeals.
Theresa May herself admitted in March 2013 that the UK Border Agency was ‘a troubled organisation’ whose performance was not good enough and which would take years to fix. But removal of appeal rights, seen in the context of the legal aid cuts which deny public funding to those without a year’s lawful residence in the country (with few exceptions), and the changes to judicial review including hugely increased court fees and the denial of public funding for preparation and drafting of cases, will make the Home Office effectively immune from challenge in its decision-making about migrants. The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights expressed concern, in its report on the Bill (para 39), that the provisions were incompatible with common-law rights of effective access to justice. But only a tiny band of courageous MPs supported an amendment calling for the appeals provision to be scrapped.
The Bill has its second reading in the House of Lords on 10 February 2014.