Britain has a new Home Secretary: Priti Patel, the former international development secretary, is now in charge of the UK’s immigration system.
As Patel takes over, there are two broad ongoing debates in the world of immigration policy. One is about the design of a post-Brexit immigration system to apply to EU citizens in the future. The other is over the hostile environment, and a wide range of rights issues from asylum rules to NHS access to immigration detention.
The shape of the future system for EU nationals is not an area where Patel has much scope for quick announcements. The Migration Advisory Committee has already been asked to provide new advice on appropriate salary thresholds for labour migration, and Boris Johnson this morning said he would also ask them to report on introducing an ‘Australian-style points-based system’ to the UK. There’s also on ongoing set of consultations, with business and civil society, on the proposals from last year’s immigration white paper. We hope that these processes culminate in a significantly more liberal approach than the one proposed under the May government which, as we’ve argued, would be hugely damaging. But they will certainly take several months, and it’s hard to see Patel making any major decisions in the interim.
The picture is a little more complicated on the issue of rights. Patel, somewhat infamously, supported the death penalty as recently as 2011. She does not have a reputation as the kind of liberaliser likely to bring sweeping reform to the government’s approach to migrants’ rights. There’s not much hope of change to the Home Office’s hostile and suspicious approach to asylum seekers and people migrating to join their family. And as an ardent Thatcherite, anything that expands the welfare state or increases spending is unlikely to get much traction in the new Home Secretary’s office. Campaigns on issues like NHS charging and access to benefits still have a long way to go.
But if Patel wants to start out her tenure with a positive move – one that bucks the extremely negative expectations of most organisations working in this field – there are two excellent opportunities for her to do so. Campaigns to lift the ban on asylum seekers working and to impose a time limit on immigration detention have gained significant momentum, and widespread support in Parliament. They have specific policy demands which, while not entailing the kind of deep reform the hostile environment ultimately needs, would be straightforward to implement and have huge benefits for many migrants. Long resisted under Theresa May’s government, the change in prime minister should offer a chance for a reset.
The ‘Lift the Ban’ coalition, which Global Future is a member of, calls for a right to work for asylum seekers. Currently asylum seekers can only work after their claim has been under consideration for a full year, and even then only in a narrow list of high-skilled jobs facing shortages. Banned from working, people are left to survive on asylum support of £37.75 a week. More than half, in a 2018 survey, end up resorting to food banks, forced to skimp on necessities and left with little way to occupy their time or integrate in the communities they’re living in. Allowing them to work would, we calculate, improve the government’s budget position by tens of millions of pounds a year.
There is no serious reason to oppose this move. The main argument against, that it creates an incentive for people to claim asylum in order to work, isn’t borne out by the reality of people’s migration. Research has found that people’s choice of destination country is affected by colonial connections and the experience of friends and family members; the vast majority of asylum seekers in the UK aren’t aware of policy on whether they can work before they arrive.
Nor is there any real coalition against lifting the work ban. 71% of the public supported it in a poll last year, and Sajid Javid seemed to have all but agreed that the policy should change, in his last appearance in Parliament as Home Secretary. Priti Patel should move quickly to show that she agrees and that a much overdue shift will come soon.
More out of character for Patel would be the introduction of a time limit on immigration detention. Home Office policy is that people should only be detained when there is a ‘realistic prospect’ of them being removed from the country in a ‘reasonable’ timeframe. That suggests the government’s intention is to use detention in the window immediately before deportation. But the policy is clearly not followed. In reality many people are held for extremely long periods – sometimes several years – and often end up not being removed at all. Liberty estimate that £76 million is spent every year on long-term detention of people who are ultimately released.
That’s led to a campaign for a 28-day time limit on how long people can be detained, and for a guarantee that their detention will be authorised by a judge rather than only by an official in the Home Office. A series of amendments to the Immigration Bill, which has stalled in Parliament as the Brexit saga drags on, would introduce a mandatory time limit, and have been signed by more than 80 MPs from every party except the DUP.
Priti Patel’s instincts are unlikely to favour a change on this front. But there’s a very good chance it will eventually be legislated anyway. Moving first could win her some credit with campaigners, and provide some reassurance that her promise to keep Britain secure will focus on measures that work, rather than on spending millions on ineffectual cruelty.
Decisions like these, of course, won’t be all down to the Home Secretary alone. It’s long been clear that the hardline views of Theresa May were the driving force in all aspects of immigration policy, even after she left the Home Office to become PM. Where Boris Johnson stands on detailed questions like these is more or less completely unknown, though his sympathetic words on undocumented migrants in the past might provide some hope that he will oppose the kind of hostility embedded in the asylum seeker work ban and indefinite detention.
Perhaps more importantly, Johnson has even more reason than Patel to want to establish some liberal credentials early on, as he seeks to pursue a hard Brexit without alienating voters ahead of a surely-imminent general election. The chatter this morning about a new unilateral guarantee for EU citizens already in Britain (although its actual content is not entirely clear) suggests he is indeed looking for ways to mark a break with the May era on immigration. Lifting the ban and introducing a time limit would be two excellent ways to start doing that.