Theresa May at the Asian Business Awards. Photo: Jonathan Brady / PA Archive/Press Association ImagesI would like to be able to celebrate Theresa May’s departure from the Home Office. Unfortunately, she is now prime minister. What does this mean for the country? There may be no real link between her time as home secretary and her time as prime minister. After all, as prime minister she will be dealing with a range of people and policy areas that she did not deal with as home secretary. And one of her main policy areas as home secretary – immigration – may now undergo fundamental change in light of the recent referendum result. But I fear that there will be a link. Looking at her time as Home secretary, a consistent image emerges: a nasty image.
Of course, many will say that if an immigration lawyer is unhappy with the home secretary, that is probably a good thing – it means that immigration is 'under control'. In fact, as we know, immigration is not 'under control' in any conventional sense: net migration is at an all-time high. But my frustration with the former home secretary is not about numbers, whether high or low. It is about an immigration system that is more and more about exploitation and cruelty.
But my frustration with the former home secretary is not about numbers, whether high or low. It is about an immigration system that is more and more about exploitation and cruelty.
This matters in a prime minister. After all, you can judge a country by how it treats foreigners. But moreover, it engenders an atmosphere of fear and mistrust between those who were born in this country, and those who make it their home. We are an increasingly diverse country with growing interactions between natives and foreigners, whether in the family, at work or in education. It would be nice if we could be a little more comfortable with ourselves – a little more at ease in our mixed skins. Unfortunately, there is little sign of this with our new Prime minister.
In the highly emotive area of family migration, her reforms have brought misery to many. She introduced a minimum income requirement for people who want to bring their non-European partners to the UK. This has led to many divided families, forced to try to maintain ties through Skype. It is currently under appeal at the Supreme Court and the Court’s decision may provide an interesting perspective from which to judge the Prime minister’s record as Home secretary. She made it all but impossible for people to bring their non-European elderly relatives to the UK, a change which is also currently under appeal. In work and study, she has tried to move from long term to short term migration. Skilled workers must generally earn £35,000 to settle here. It is harder for students to stay in the UK to work after they finish their studies. Whether or not you agree with this move, this constant coming and going of people must make integration more difficult.
Throughout, this has given the impression of a country more interested in money than love or social cohesion. This has surely been confirmed by the prime minister’s much trumpeted decision to “roll out the red carpet” to wealthy migrants early in her time at the Home Office. She introduced accelerated settlement for those willing to invest large sums of money in the UK. Unlike those in most other immigration categories, these investors do not need to (deign to) speak English. This category has come under significant criticism for enabling wealthy foreign criminals to launder the proceeds of crime. Recent evidence suggests that the red carpet treatment is failing: the numbers of applications has fallen sharply.
By contrast, the prime minister sought to secure her image as a tough home secretary for other, poorer criminals. In perhaps the most famous case, she was ultimately able to secure the return of Abu Qatada to Jordan. She had –controversially – obtained assurances from the Jordanian authorities that they would not use evidence based on torture in his trial. However, earlier in the legal dispute, her lawyers appeared to have miscalculated the deadline for him to lodge an application with the European Court of Human Rights. Also, ultimately he returned to Jordan voluntarily. And in the end, he was acquitted in his trial in Jordan. So the Abu Qatada case is hardly a positive story for our new Prime minister.
As home secretary, she extended her battle to other poor migrants. She set welfare payments to asylum seekers at levels that were simply vindictive.
As home secretary, she extended her battle to other poor migrants. She set welfare payments to asylum seekers at levels that were simply vindictive. The High Court ruled that she had acted unlawfully, but after reviewing the levels, she simply maintained them. She fought a lengthy legal battle to defend the Government’s system for the detention of asylum seekers until the criticisms from many different parts of the judiciary simply became too strong. She recently tried to revive the system, but – for now – it seems that this will not happen. She was responsible for the mass removal of students after a Panorama investigation into student visa fraud. The immigration Tribunal recently strongly criticised the evidence on the basis of which many of these students were removed. There were suggestions that there would be a Parliamentary investigation into this. If this happens, again, this would provide an interesting perspective on the prime minister’s time as home secretary.
Perhaps her greatest claim for praise from those seeking to help migrants would be her work on modern day slavery. She rightly described this as a scourge, “hiding in plain sight” in our country. But I for one am not entirely convinced. I worry that the focus on this group of migrants comes from a desire to find objects of pity. This reinforces our sense of virtue, while denying the migrants all agency. There is also generally no straightforward route to settlement for migrants in this category. So our objects of pity do not have the opportunity to stick around long enough to make us question our naïve distinctions.
The clearest recent indication of her as prime minister came in her speech to the Conservative Party conference last year. Quite apart from being extremely negative, it was also criticised for being “dangerous and factually wrong”. She was denounced as simply “nasty”. With such a person as prime minister, I worry for our diverse nation.