Windrush—though appalling—is just the tip of the icebergby Colin Yeo / April 26, 2018 / Leave a comment
When I was first starting out as an immigration lawyer at the turn of the millennium, I was taught that here in our island nation of Great Britain we do immigration checks at our natural border. This contrasted with our continental neighbours, with their land borders, their Napoleonic Code and their state supervision of populations through systems of identity cards and population registers.
In the UK, trained officials checked passports at ports and airports. On the continent, employers, hoteliers, public servants and police officers checked identity cards in innumerable everyday interactions both between citizens and between the state and the citizen.So I was pleasantly surprised to find that Jacob Rees-Mogg commented in a Channel 4 debate this week that the modern “hostile environment” introduced by Theresa May is “fundamentally un-British.” I could not agree more.
During my career, I have witnessed the distinctions between the approach in Britain and the approach on the continent eroded. The first shift came in 1996 when a criminal offence of employing an unlawful resident was introduced. It went virtually unenforced, though, until the Labour government introduced civil financial penalties of up to £5,000 per illegal worker for employers in 2006.
This change was objectionable in principle. Requiring citizens to conduct immigration checks on one another is likely to encourage discrimination. Only fellow citizens perceived as potentially illegal are likely to be checked. Those with white skin and local accents might be assumed to be legal but cautious citizens who, fearing a substantial financial penalty if they get it wrong, might feel they need to check the papers for foreign looking or sounding citizens. After decades of equality legislation, though, employers ought at least to be used to the concept of non-discrimination, and they were encouraged by a code of conduct to check the papers of all employees irrespective of background or appearance.