Photo: Steve Simmons
Putting the foxes in charge of the migration hen house
The Financial Times has a story today (behind the paywall) suggesting that the government’s new visa system for EU migrants will have to be enforced not by the Home Office or the Borders Agency but by employers, landlords and universities, because of cuts to the civil service. That would, indeed, build on the government’s existing outsourcing of much immigration control for non-EU migrants to such groups, and it’s still a profoundly bad idea that won’t benefit Britain, migrants or good employers. If we must have a system of migration controls, it should be administered by our democratically elected and accountable government, for four reasons.
First, there’s a democratic principle at stake here. Laws should be enforced by the state, not private individuals or actors. That way we know who’s accountable, and concerns can be addressed through the usual channels, from parliamentary scrutiny all the way up to throwing the bums out at a General Election. I don’t think anyone assumed that ‘taking back control of our borders’ meant that the border would be at the factory gate or university campus, still less at the notice in the newsagent’s window advertising rooms for rent.
Second, this would put a considerable burden on good employers, especially small businesses, higher education institutions and landlords (who include couples just renting out the flat one of them used to live in, not well-resourced organisations with a compliance unit used to checking people’s immigration status.) Immigration law is not simple, and visa restrictions (especially at the interface between studying and working part-time) can be particularly complex.
Whereas the Home Office might be able to handle half a million cases a year with sufficient resources (ie more than the cut-to-the-bone budget it currently has), the economies of scale involved in employing just one EU migrant, just like renting out just one flat, are simply never going to add up. The result will often spill over into discrimination against anyone with a foreign-sounding name which will include a whole host of British citizens, as small firms and individual landlords opt not to take the risk or go through the paperwork.
Worse still, some employers and landlords aren’t good. In a week that has seen justified revulsion against landlords offering sex-for-rent, the risks of putting those with an interest in exploiting migrant workers or tenants really shouldn’t have to be spelled out. Unions are all-too familiar with the employer who turns a blind eye to someone without the right papers if they can get away with cutting wages, only to discover with Casablanca-style faux horror when they discover that the worker insísting on the minimum wage or decent working conditions is an illegal migrant (or a student working an hour too long or a week beyond their visa conditions allow.)
And fourthly, this could be the thin end of the wedge. This morning’s story doesn’t mention extending the outsourcing of border control to service providers like hospitals, schools, or even private businesses. But stories are beginning to emerge already – in the UK around schools collecting nationality data inappropriately (as well as restaurant staff in the US asking diners if they have ‘the right to be here’. )
“Papers, please” used to be the phrase that marked out a repressive regime, and could be particularly inflammatory if applied – in line with the government’s pledge of a soft border for Northern Ireland – on the streets of Derry.
We all have an interest in making sure that if control of the borders is reclaimed in Brexit Britain, the foxes are kept away from the hen house, and the Treasury provides public servants with the resources to do the job right.