New investigations welcome, but hostile environment must change

Posted by Bella Sankey on 30 August 2016

On Sunday Theresa May revealed that the Government is launching an audit of public services to tackle racial disparities. Meanwhile, the Labour Party is launching a consultation on tackling discrimination and promoting racial equality.

Both initiatives should be welcomed.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission and Black Lives Matter UK have recently laid bare the scale, pattern and challenge of racial inequality in Britain.

But audits and consultations are only a first step. Successive Governments have ignored evidence and policy recommendations on race discrimination in favour of comforting words and a revolving door of ‘reviews’.

The solutions to entrenched discrimination are, of course, complex and require long-term commitment and strategy. Yet the Government could take a number of easy steps to improve things quickly and send a powerful message that its vision for post-Brexit Britain is an equal and tolerant one.

For one it could repeal its flagship ‘hostile environment’ strategy which encourages racial profiling and discrimination.

The strategy is designed to bring immigration control in-country – farming immigration powers and penalties out to employers, landlords, NHS staff, banks and police officers and giving the green light to spot checks and aggressive raids.

A border on every street increases discrimination. Below are just three measures that show exactly how.

Right to Rent

The Right to Rent scheme places a new duty on private landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants. It was first piloted in a few areas and was rolled out across the country in February 2016.

The Government’s evaluation of the pilot evidenced racial discrimination across the board – via statistics, mystery shopper exercises and landlord focus groups.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ evaluation supported these findings, showing 17 cases of direct discrimination and finding that over 25% landlords would be less likely to rent to someone with foreign-sounding name or accent. Half of those turned down by a landlord felt discrimination was a factor.

Driving while illegal

Last week we blogged about the Byron Hamburgers immigration enforcement raids – but this is only the thin end of the wedge. The Immigration Acts 2014 and 2016 created reams of new immigration offences and expanded powers of entry, search, closure and seizure to allow for more raids and checks.

One of the new offences is ‘driving while illegal’, which the National Black Police Association says will return us to the bad days of sus laws and make the police the ‘whipping boy’ for the immigration service.

At present, worryingly, police don’t need a reason to stop vehicles – and blank cheque powers like these invite stereotyping and misuse.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary reports that black people are already twice as likely to be stopped while driving.

These numbers will likely increase once police are given licence to routinely ask drivers for their papers.

Immigration stop and search

Added to this mix is the fact that the Home Office thinks it has the power to stop anyone, wherever they are in the country, in order to check their immigration status.

It is on this basis that the department has conducted in-country immigration “spot-checks” in ethnically diverse areas of the UK.

To understand how wrong this can go in practice, consider how last month the Home Office was forced to settle a racial discrimination case in which a black British woman was stopped and asked for her passport or ID while dropping her mother-in-law off at Belfast City Airport.

She was not travelling herself, but says an immigration officer approached her on the airport concourse telling her she ‘looked foreign and not from here’.

She was forced to produce her driver’s licence while the officer checked her status via radio link.

Liberty contests the use of this power, and believes spot checks need further investigation.

Have you been stopped and questioned by an immigration officer away from the border? For example at a tube station, in the street, in your car or anywhere else in your community?

If you are concerned you were approached on the grounds of your race, religion or nationality, tell Liberty about it. Please call our Advice and Information line on 0845 123 2307 or 020 3145 0461. Opening hours are available here.

Home Office must scrap its ‘hostile environment’

Creating a hostile environment means a border on every street, forcing those more likely to be stopped to carry identification and prepare to be hassled.

It is an ID card policy by another name – but ID cards only for BME people, migrants, or anyone else who doesn’t look or sound ‘British’.

Race hate already makes up 82% of all hate crime and will be further emboldened by a strategy which visibly encourages racial profiling and creates myriad obstacles for BME people and migrants.

There is a contradiction in the Government’s official response to the rise in hate crime post-Brexit. It cannot claim to be concerned at ‘Go Home’ graffiti daubed on Hammersmith’s Polish & Cultural Centre or directed at BME Britons while giving the green light to discriminatory street stops and sanctioning ‘Go Home’ raids.

If the new Home Secretary genuinely wants to deal with her predecessor’s (colour) blind spot and rise to the post-Brexit challenge, she should scrap this toxic legacy and make inclusion and belonging a measure of her department’s goals.