Just this week, the Government has published an audit on racial and social inequality, highlighting severe and stark disparities in attainment and opportunity among different ethnic groups in the UK.
Theresa May, the Prime Minister, has said that:
“People who have lived with discrimination don’t need a government audit to make them aware of the scale of the challenge. But this audit means that for society as a whole – for government, for our public services – there is nowhere to hide. These issues are now out in the open. And the message is very simple: if these disparities cannot be explained then they must be changed.”
It will be fascinating to see, over the coming months, how these bold words will translate into action. Because it must be apparent, to even the most casual observer, that the ‘hostile environment’ which the Government has been creating for people subject to immigration control has been steadfastly contributing to these disparities and inequalities.
While some of these consequences- such as the news that 1 in 5 people subjected to ‘spot-checks’ by Immigration officials over the past five years were actually British citizens [ https://thebristolcable.org/2017/10/brits-stopped-checked-immigration-crimes-cant-commit/#top ]- may have been unintentional, if arguably wholly predictable, it is apparent that much of the legislation put in place has served little purpose other than to impoverish and immiserate Black and Minority Ethnic children and their families.
For example, in November 2012, amendments were made to the benefit regulations, specifically excluding ‘Zambrano’ carers- which is to say, the Third Country parents or carers of British citizen children from eligibility to public funds. Overwhelmingly, and almost by definition, this impacts on the life chances of Black and Minority Ethnic British children, denying them access to local authority housing assistance, and leaving them living in sub-poverty, frequently on local authority section 17 Children Act subsistence allowance rates of around £35 per week.
While it is possible for the parents of these ‘Zambrano’ children to seek Leave to Remain under the UK’s immigration rules- as distinct from the EEA Right to Reside they already have- potentially allowing them recourse to public funds, the application system is complex to navigate, particularly following the decimation of the legal aid system in 2013.
So, just the day before publication of the Government’s audit, we saw ‘Sylvie’, who is the single parent of ‘Brendan’. Brendan, who has a diagnosis of autism, is now 11 years of age, and has recently started at secondary school. He is a British citizen, acquiring his citizenship from his father, from whom Sylvie has been estranged for a number of years.
Sylvie had originally been granted 30 months leave to remain in the UK, on the basis of her parental relationship to her dependent son: she was able to find work as a cleaner for around 16 hours a week, which enabled her to earn a little money to support Brendan and herself, and to meet her caring responsibilities to her son. When this leave to remain expired in March 2016, Sylvie sought to submit an application for renewal, but was unable to afford the Home Office’s application fee- at that time, just under £1000.
She submitted the application regardless, offering to pay the fee in instalments. This request was refused, and Sylvie received notification from the Home Office that she was an ‘overstayer’, and required to leave the UK- advice which should never have been given, since Sylvie retained her EEA right to reside, and could not lawfully be removed. She lost her entitlement to welfare benefits- including Child Benefit and the Disability Living Allowance she had obtained to help meet her son’s needs- and became destitute. For the past 18 months, she and Brendan have been supported under section 17 of the Children Act, with a weekly income of £70 between the two of them- or £5 per person per day. While, technically at least, Sylvie retained the right to work, she had no evidence of this and, indeed, the Home Office had repeatedly advised her, wrongly, that her presence in the UK was ‘illegal’ and that she faced detention and removal.
In April of this year, Sylvie approached ASIRT, and we assisted with the submission of another application for leave to remain, together with a request that the Home Office’s application fee- now just under £1500, including a ‘health surcharge’, should be waived.
This request was refused by the Home Office on the basis that Sylvie and Brendan were not regarded as destitute, being in receipt of a joint weekly income of £70.
ASIRT responded with a pre-action letter, counselling that we regard the Home Office’s application of its fee waiver policy as unlawful- which we do. The Home Office withdrew its decision, and agreed to reassess Sylvie’s application for leave to remain.
Finally, this week, she has been given notification of yet another grant of 30 months leave to remain – and so the whole cycle begins again. Sylvie will once again be able to seek work, and to apply for the welfare support which potentially makes her own and her British citizen child’s life tolerable, all the while knowing that, on the basis of the Home Office’s present polices and procedures, there is every likelihood that she will again find herself reduced to destitution and unable to meet Brendan’s needs at the end of the 30 month cycle.
This state of affairs, in which a British child is systematically reduced to absolute poverty every two-and-a-half years, cannot conceivably considered commensurate to any principle of safeguarding his welfare, or meeting his best interests. The opportunities and life chances available to him, as a black British child whose mother happens not to have been born in the UK, are markedly and demonstrably inferior to those of his other British peers. And his circumstances are by no means unique.
Plainly, then, if the Government is serious about looking to challenge the discrimination and inequalities experienced by its citizens, it could do worse than consider the systemic, inbuilt inequalities which its own legislative programme creates for Black and Minority Ethic children whose parents are not British-born.
Mrs May has spoken of her desire to ‘reveal uncomfortable truths’, and to shine a light on the vastly unequal and discriminatory experiences Britain’s ethnic minorities have of Britain’s public services.
We sincerely hope that she will have the courage to consider some of the uncomfortable truths which become apparent from a critical engagement with the ‘hostile environment’ strategy of which she is the principle architect, and to change some of the disparities in treatment experienced by children like Brendan, which can neither be explained nor justified.