Seven years after the then home secretary Theresa May announced her intention to create “a really hostile environment” for undocumented residents in the UK, the high court has declared one of her flagship schemes to be unlawful.
The Right to Rent scheme, which threatens landlords with unlimited fines and up to five years in jail if their tenants can’t produce all the right immigration paperwork, has been found to encourage racial discrimination against anybody with a foreign-sounding name or a foreign passport. The court has found that the government ignored evidence of these risks and, in turn, that it failed to provide any evidence the scheme delivers anything but misery and state-sanctioned hostility – targeted predominantly at minorities, people of colour, and people who just happen to have been born somewhere else.
Like many other organisations, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants warned the government for years about the inherent risks, not to mention the abject cruelty, of the hostile environment. We warned that forcing undocumented people out of their homes and jobs would offer a windfall to rogue landlords and traffickers. That long-resident people of colour would be forced to prove their right to be here. That those who can’t would end up destitute or at the mercy of a system designed to humiliate anybody who so much as thinks about moving here. But when you’re imposing austerity and zero-hours contracts on the native population, blind hostility towards the foreign-born is just good politics.
And when the Windrush scandal finally drew the public’s gaze to the truth of these wicked policies, the underwhelming response of the new home secretary, Sajid Javid, was to declare that he didn’t much care for the word “hostile” and was therefore renaming these policies the “compliant environment”. I’m pretty sure that if you’ve spent most or all of your life here and you’re asked to prove it simply because you “don’t look British”, or you’re told your rent money is worth less than somebody else’s because you don’t have a British passport, the horror and indignity of your rights being stripped away isn’t lessened by this rebranding.
Though Javid talked about the need to “review” and “reflect” on the reasons his department had become a synonym for brutality, tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money were being spent by his lawyers to fight against a request that he review Right to Rent – a policy that, for many, echoed the days of to-let signs declaring, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”.
Even after the Home Office’s defeat today, yet more public money may be spent appealing against the decision, despite the judgment making it very clear that there is no “improved” version of this policy that could be considered lawful. There is no scenario in which enlisting landlords, doctors, nurses and teachers as border guards ends well. The hostile environment needs more than a rebrand. It has to go.
Here’s why: people lose their right to rent because the Home Office lost their paperwork. Others are turned away by landlords because they don’t have a British passport. Still more have come close to homelessness because they can’t afford the application fees to regularise their status – and without regular status, they can’t get a job to pay the fees. In every single case it was their name, their skin colour, that gave them up. The absence of purely Caucasian ancestry forces them to show their papers. And very quickly the question “But where are you really from?” is no laughing matter. Because in the hostile environment, the wrong answer can cost you everything.
I keep asking myself: who can actually say that their life has improved since we decided it was OK to do this to each other? Is there any hard evidence that anybody has got on to the housing ladder more quickly since we started throwing undocumented families out of their homes? Can anybody say that they’ve been seen more quickly by their doctor since we started denying chemotherapy to elderly black men?
Scapegoating is a convenient distraction – a cheap political stunt for those who see no crime in sacrificing the rights, the dignity and the lives of others on the altar of their own political ambitions. Hostility is a choice – and the game is up. We must choose to dismantle the hostile environment.
• Satbir Singh is chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants