By Nadeem Saeed

While raiding the political centre ground with the ideas of living wage and National Infrastructure Commission, the Conservatives are yet pumping up rhetoric on the question of immigration to play to the UKIP gallery of voters.

Immigration has always been a hotly debated political issue. But it has become toxic since the 2008 financial crisis, which resulted in spending cuts on essential services like health, education and social services.

Recession was the outcome of reckless subprime banking but politicians and the right wing media found bogeyman of immigration to hold it responsible for all the socio-economic problems emanating from the crisis, thus shifting the focus from the failings of powerful financial sector to the society’s most vulnerable.

Visuals of desperate migrants putting lives at risk to enter Britain from Calais and Europe through Hungry exacerbated the anti-immigration sentiments with misjudged use of language like “swarms of people”, “marauders” or “[mass immigration making it] impossible to build a cohesive society”.

EU Migrant crisis
EU Migrant crisis

Against this backdrop, a bill meant to make Britain unwelcoming for illegal migrants has passed the first parliamentary obstacle.  MPs debated the Immigration Bill in the House of Commons on Tuesday 13 October 2015 and the bill was given a second reading by 323 votes to 274.

The bill seems to aim at creating a hostile environment for illegal working and blocking access to services for those who do not have leave to enter or remain in the UK. It introduces a new array of criminal offences and entrusts immigration officers and police with more powers to deal with illegal immigration.

It is the seventh immigration bill introduced in the UK during the last eight years.

Under the measures proposed in the bill illegal working will become a criminal offence in its own right punishable with a custodial sentence of up to six months while the wages paid will be recoverable as the proceeds of crime; custodial sentence for employing illegal worker will be increased from two years to five years; failure to carry out right to rent checks or taking steps to remove illegal migrants from their property can make landlords or agents liable to be imprisoned for up to five years; police and immigration officers can search people and premises to seize UK driving licences of illegal migrants; banks and building societies will have to perform periodic immigration checks resulting in closure and freezing of illegal migrants accounts; and a new immigration skills charge which will be applied to employers sponsoring non-EEA nationals who come to the UK under Tier-2 of the Points-Based System.

Labour, SNP and Lib Dem MPs opposed the bill. A bid by Labour to amend the legislation was rejected by a margin of 40 votes. The bill will now go to committee stage, where it will undergo detailed scrutiny from MPs.

Defending the legislation, home secretary Theresa May said the bill would be a greater source of fairness to British citizens and legitimate migrants. But her Labour counterpart, Andy Burnham, labelled the bill “unpleasant and insidious”.

Earlier, in an article for the Independent on Sunday, the shadow home secretary wrote “The aim of the Immigration Bill is to make Britain a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal migrants. In practice, it could end up making Britain a more hostile place for anyone with a foreign-sounding name – worsening the very problem that Cameron said he wanted to challenge.”

In his speech to the Conservatives conference this month, Prime Minister Cameron had raised the problem of job applicants with “white-sounding names” who were nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with “ethnic-sounding names”, even if they had the same qualifications.

The opposition’s concerns are echoed in a survey carried out by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) which found that 42 per cent of landlords said Right to Rent made them less likely to let a property to someone who does not have a British passport, while 27 per cent said they were even reluctant to engage with people who had foreign-sounding names or accents.

But the Home Secretary, while debating the bill in the Commons, defended the plans to require landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants. She insisted that the government did not expect them to become immigration experts and that they would be able to call a new helpline where they would be given a “very simple message” about what to do.

Simon Duce of APRM Outsourced Letting Support mocks the idea of Home Office Hotline by asking “Will it take 45 minutes to get through to a befuddling ‘press one for general enquiries’ system? Have they ever called HMRC?”

In a blogpost on Letting Agent Today, he writes “I might just sell up, especially with property values at a peak” to stay away from too much responsibility in the wake of carrying out immigration checks and repeated checks on tenants with limited leave to remain in the UK.

Shahid Dastgir Khan, an immigration and human rights specialist at London’s law firm Khans Solicitors, commented that the bill if turned into law can raise racial tensions in the communities which otherwise take pride in their ethnic diversity.

“Members of BME communities will be susceptible to be turned away by employers and landlords only because they look and sound foreigner”, he said, adding “Ordinary citizens should never be placed in the position of a policeman or an immigration officer.”

The immigration skills charge on hiring skilled workers from outside the European Economic Area will increase financial woes of small and medium businesses especially the curry houses that by and large are dependent on chefs employed from the countries of Indian sub-continent.

The industry is already suffering due to immigration laws which make it difficult to bring chefs to the UK. It is feared that third of 12,000 curry houses in Britain may close soon with two closing down every week. Over 100,000 people are believed to be employed by the curry industry.

No one will object to dealing with illegal immigration and working but the impact of measures taken need to be evaluated carefully to avoid battering the social fabric binding the communities. It is hoped that MPs will thoroughly debate the bill at the committee-stage to address concerns being expressed by the stakeholders.