The Conservative government’s new Immigration Bill would grant sweeping “Henry VIII” powers to the Home Secretary to make up immigration rules with limited oversight or accountability to Parliament.
The Johnson government’s new post-Brexit border policy ends free movement with the EU. It extends to EU migrants the brutal anti-migrant regime that is already imposed on non-EU migrants, while also changing that regime in new ways.
It classes migrants earning less than a certain salary threshold as “unskilled” and offers no general route for them to enter the country. They will be allowed in only as family dependents of “skilled” migrants; or on precarious, hyper-exploitative, short-term industry-specific “guest worker” schemes. Otherwise they will be shut out entirely, pushing more people towards dangerous routes, putting them at the mercy of unscrupulous bosses and smugglers.
EU migrants already in the UK are eligible to apply for Settled Status. Those successful will avoid being subject to this regime. But a litany of exceptions and problems with the system means that many are at risk of falling through the cracks. And if they don’t secure Settled Status in time, people who may have lived in the UK for years or decades will become “illegal” overnight.
Since that report, the new Bill to implement the government’s policy has now had its first reading in Parliament. On top of everything we already knew about the Conservatives’ xenophobic, anti-worker plans, the Bill’s publication reveals an added danger.
Rather than setting out these proposed immigration rules in detail, it delegates sweeping powers to the Home Secretary who will be able to make up immigration rules as she sees fit, through “secondary legislation”.
Secondary legislation is subject to much less scrutiny by Parliament than is required to pass primary legislation, including less debate and no opportunity to amend. By reducing parliamentary scrutiny over immigration rules, such “Henry VIII” provisions also effectively reduce the window in which outside pressure from campaigners, protesters, strikers etc could hope to influence decision-makers.
We don’t yet know when the second reading – the first opportunity for MPs to debate the Bill – will come. The Tories have a large majority, so it will be difficult to stop them signing this blank cheque to themselves. And the Covid-19 crisis makes it harder to organise protests and other public actions that might force MPs’ hands: the Labour Campaign for Free Movement has already had to postpone indefinitely the planned 25 April day of protest against the Bill.
Nevertheless, it’s vital that we make as much of a stand as we can now. Labour, the unions and our movement need to voice our unequivocal opposition to the Bill and the Tories’ policy, and positively argue for the alternative overwhelmingly backed by Labour conference last year: to defend and extend free movement and migrants’ rights. Even if the Bill passes now, putting down a marker now will help us build a movement to reverse it later.
So at 12 noon on Saturday 21 March (the time of the national anti-racism demonstration that was cancelled due to Covid-19), LCFM is organising an online group call with MP Nadia Whittome. This will be an opportunity for supporters to get a briefing on the Bill and discuss ideas for the campaign against it.
See labourfreemovement.org and social media for details to join the call, and please get involved.
• Ben Towse is a Labour Campaign for Free Movement activist, writing in a personal capacity.