The news media has finally come alive to the fact that grave injustices are being done to a group of people who have lived, worked, paid taxes, raised families, etc, etc for the last forty years or so and who now find their status as legally settled persons under challenge from NHS bureaucrats, private sector landlords, employers, bank officials, and the DVLA. Even worse, some of them are being banged up in detention centres and threatened with deportation.
We are, of course, talking about the citizens of Commonwealth countries who were settled in the UK before the all-important 1971 Immigration Act came into force. This piece of legislation granted the status of permanent resident of the UK to these people and with it the assurance they could go about their lives on a basis which approximated to British citizenship with a few exceptions, until the day they die. For more on the legal background to this see Nick Nason’s excellent blog at the Free Movement blogspot.
What we now know is that the people who benefited from this status all these years ago are now in the cross-hairs of the Home Office’s efforts to track down people in an irregular position to ramp up immigration enforcement statistics. To accomplish this task the authorities have rolled out a ‘hostile environment’ programme which requires all sorts of third parties – employers, landlords, hospitals, high street banks, police officers checking driving licenses – to inquire into the immigration status of anyone they come across during the course of their business. This will often mean checking with the Home Office’s Visas and Immigration department to see what information they hold on the person being dealt with.
Victims, victims, victims….
If this happens to you, welcome to a whole world of pain. The Visas and Immigration people have only very incomplete records of people who are legally resident in the country and an inquiry that concerns someone who arrived in 1966 as an infant, often on her mother’s passport, will not show up on any database as showing someone entitled to be here. This triggers a reaction in which the person is refused the service they have applied for on the grounds that they have not established that they are legally present in the country.
Being refused a job you have applied for, or being told by your landlord that you must quit the premises is bad enough, but it is made even worse by the initiation of investigations by Home Office officials about your position which can, and has, led to people being arrested, detained, and even deported.
Some of the victims have received coverage in the press in recent weeks. There is Sarah O’Connor for example, who arrived in the UK with her mother at the age of six. After losing a job she had held for 16 years she applied for Jobs Seekers Allowance and was challenged by the Benefits Agency to prove she was here with a legal immigration status. Documents showing she had been to school in England, had worked and paid taxes all her life, and much else are deemed unsatisfactory. Not only was she refused unemployment benefits she has also been told she cannot work in the UK. Now heavily in debt because of this enforced lay off she now lives in fear, after 51 years residence, of a knock on the door which will signal the start of a deportation process back to a country she hasn’t seen since she was a toddler.
Or Paulette Wilson, a 61 year old grandmother who spent a week in Yarl’s Wood detention centre under threat of deportation for not having documents relating to her entry into the country, way back in 1968, when she was aged 10. Or Renford MacIntyre, a 64-year old living in the UK since 1968, and now made homeless, sleeping on a sofa in an industrial unit, because he doesn’t have the papers the authorities now say they need.
We’ve got just the form for you!
The Home Office has taken a significant step in acknowledging the distress that their hostile environment regulations are now causing people with the legal right of residence but are without the papers they claim are now needed to prove they meet the increasingly exacting standards of the immigration control system. They excuse themselves for the distress being caused to people in this situation by saying the measures are ‘proportionate’ and justified by what they call the need to ensure that immigration is rigorously controlled. They claim that people who do not have the documents needed to prove their legal status can apply for a “no-time-limit” biometric identity card which provide the evidence which employers, landlords, banks, the benefits agency, the NHS, etc, now require from people.
Sounds reasonable, but what is actually involved in applying for a biometric card? The Home Office has set this out in a guidance note for Undocumented Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK which appeared on their website on 13 April.
The guidance links to the application form for the no-time-limit biometric card, which turns out to be 21-pages long and which requires that “documents proving identity” and “evidence of continuous residence in the UK throughout all of the years since initial entry be provided. An experienced legal advisor will have a good idea what that might be – school attendance records, registrations with GPs, national insurance contributions, landlord testimonials, and maybe letters from church ministers to cover any period when the person was in the UK but not actively working, for whatever reason. Bear in mind that this is to cover a period that might be as long as 50 years – may be more – so expect to find that schools attended decades ago might no longer be in existence, GP surgeries closed and doctors deceased.
It is no wonder the Home Office guidance recommends that anyone contemplating the action gets advice from a qualified legal expert. It might have mentioned there is no legal aid for this type of work and lawyers willing to take the work on a private basis are increasingly hard to find. But don’t despair, a solicitor will eventually be found at the right price, though it is likely you, won’t be able to afford it….
The Home Office for the application itself is £229 – more if dependent family members are included. All-in-all I wouldn’t expect to be able to complete the whole application package, obtain the documentary evidence needed, and pay for the help from an advisor for much less than £1,000.
Remember that the people who find themselves have to make this application are likely to be in this position because someone has refused them a vital service, and this will probably have triggered a chain of events which has led to them being dismissed from a job and unable to get one, refused benefits, and heavily in debt through efforts to survive without an income. In these circumstances £1,000 is not just a large sum of money – it is an impossibly large sum of money.
In the meantime the Caribbean High Commissions and Church of England bishops have issued a call for compassion from the Home Office and a please for special help to get the problems caused to this group of residents sorted out. Expect the Home Office to be slow to grant this. The idea of an expedited application procedure with lower evidential requirements will send shivers down the spines of Home Office honchos who will fear an avalanche of applications coming in from people with claims they will be inclined to see as dubious to say the least.
Commonwealth citizen well-wishers are also on the scene, using on-line petitions to raise a call for an ‘amnesty’ for anyone arriving the UK between 1948 and 1971. Ignore for a moment the fact that the cut-off date for one group is actually 1 January 1973, and also that a large group of people equally the victims of the ‘show-us-your-papers’ culture arrived as minors after this later date, and we have to ask whether this idea of an amnesty is likely to provide a remedy.
Firstly, amnesties are usually requested by people who have committed some sort of wrong in the past and who wish to be forgiven for their transgressions. What have these Commonwealth citizens done wrong? They established a legal right to be here at the time they entered and throughout all the long years of their residence have satisfied anyone who needed satisfaction – including official government departments – that they are lawfully settled. The burden of proof should surely be reversed. Instead of people in these circumstances showing that they are legally resident, and it being assumed that until they do so they are not, it would be simple to require the Home Office to positively state its reasons for believing that a person is not lawfully resident and set out their reasons for holding to this belief. In the absence of this evidence supporting this accusation the person concerned ought to be accepted as a lawful resident.
In place of amnesty, compensation….
Instead of ‘compassion’ and ‘amnesty’ supporters of the rights of tis group of long-settled migrants should be calling the government to account for its grossly disproportionate action in exposing them to them to the callousness of the hostile environment. The fact that so many victims of these measures have the same characteristics – i.e. the children of people from the countries of the Caribbean – then the question of whether the policy is institutionally racist ought to be tested in the courts.
The McPherson ruling on what constitutes institutional racism sets out the real frame of reference by which we judge the Home Office’s actions in these matters. As the judge set in his report on the failings of the Metropolitan Police into the death of Stephen Lawrence:
“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin […] [which] can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”
The ‘professional service’ that legally-resident Commonwealth citizens require from the Home Office is one that says the evidence of a lifetime of residence, work and compliance with the law in the UK ought to be accepted without the imposition of demands for proofs which are onerous, burdensome, and excessively expensive. When this evidence is callously discounted, causing immense hardship and fear to an individual, then what is needed is not an amnesty, but compensation, and lots of it. Who’s going to start a petition demanding that?