The second reading of the government’s flagship Immigration and Social Security Coordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill was scheduled for 21 April 2020. However, facing opposition from all sides of the political spectrum the Government struck the proposed “virtual” second reading off the order paper.
Critics had suggested the government might take advantage of the unprecedented circumstances and to try to push through the contentious bill with minimal scrutiny. The Government however may have ultimately agreed this was a battle best fought on another day.
It had been decided earlier this month that parliament would return on 21 April, following demands from opposition parties eager to hold the government to account over their coronavirus measures.
Yet it remains to be seen how many parliamentary functions can effectively be carried out whilst still adhering to social distancing measures – set to remain in place for weeks. There is increasing pressure to find technological solutions that will ensure MPs can adequately fulfil their scrutiny function, but as of yet they have not been established.
For example, at present the Speaker could not safely call for divisions, effectively nullifying any opportunity for the bill to be amended before it advances to the committee stage. Had the Immigration Bill been granted its second reading, it would have likely proceeded through the commons with minimal scrutiny, oversight, or opposition.
Thankfully, on this occasion, it appears that the external pressures, or the optics of pushing the controversial bill through unchallenged, was enough to cause this government to pause.
One can only hope that this delay fosters a sense of reflection in the Home Office. As the fragility of the UK, among so many other things, has been truly exposed by this recent pandemic. Those who have stepped up to the plate during this crisis are – in many cases – those same people that were deemed not to be key workers in the Immigration Bill.
One can only think how different the scenario would have been if COVID-19 reared its head a year later, with the Immigration Bill having already passed through both houses and remaining filed in the Commons library with its seal of Royal Assent
An already bleak picture – in which over 18,000 Briton’s have already lost their lives to the virus – may have looked much worse.
Brexit and the immigration narrative
Nobody could have predicted on 23 June 2016, when the British people voted to leave the European Union, or on February 2020, when the Home Office proudly announced its new points-based immigration system, that allowed only the smartest and most highly skilled workers come to work and live in the UK, that by April the world would be facing a pandemic so severe it would alter the fabric of every society on earth.
In many ways, the Immigration Bill became the figurehead of our post Brexit legislation. It is undeniable that immigration and the narrative around numbers of people emigrating to this country was a key motivation for many people when deciding how to vote in the Brexit referendum.
First, let me clarify: it is not racist to want sovereignty over your country’s laws and control of your own borders. This is not an argument claiming that Britain outside of the European Union would have succumbed so horrifically to the coronavirus that it renders any criticism of the European Union null and void.
Everyone had their own reasons for voting either leave or remain and it is not my place to say whether I think you were right or wrong.
What I will say is that if the coronavirus peaked at a time when we were already implementing the points-based immigration system proposed in our immigration bill, the drastic impact of the coronavirus in the UK would likely have been compounded exponentially.
Points-based immigration system
In simple terms, the points-based immigration system will only allow overseas citizens to live and work in the country if they can acquire the set level of points – 70 points or higher. Applicants are awarded points-based upon characteristics the Home Office deem desirable for anyone wishing to make their home in Britain. Characteristics that provide points include; Having a job offer (20 points) with a salary of over £25,600 or above (20 points) and having a PhD in a subject relevant to a job (10 points).
The implications of the proposed points-based system is that “low skilled” workers would no longer be allowed to make their home in Britain; With the exception of those deemed as working in a “shortage occupation”.
Already, we notice glaring omissions from this “shortage occupation” list. Take for example carers, for whose heroism in the face of this pandemic has seen our country collectively applaud their work from our doors, window and balconies each week. Under the current proposals of a points-based immigration system, the social care sector would be one of the hardest hit. The sector already struggles to fill vacancies and the average salary is well below the required threshold.
Equally, Yvette Cooper, Chair of the Home Affairs Committee expressed her concerns on learning that NHS visa extensions “may not cover all NHS staff after all and that some on the COVID-19 frontline may still face big visa and surcharge bills this year”.
The Committee also heard on Tuesday (22 April 2020), that the future of thousands of overseas health workers in the UK is in doubt because the Home Office has failed to guarantee visa extensions for them during the coronavirus crisis.
COVID-19 and its impact
To reiterate, nobody could have predicted just how much this pandemic would alter our society, our very way of being. But the response to the pandemic should cause the government to have a long hard think about what really constitutes a “key worker”.
Because it is the social care workers, the supermarket staff, the delivery drivers and the porters; It is the 150 fruit pickers that we have flown in from Romania so we can meet our country’s demand for food in this crisis; It is the cleaners, the warehouse workers and the all those other amazing people who have been the bedrock of this nation in its greatest time of need.
It is those same people who would not have been in this country had we already had our points-based immigration system. That seems something worth reflecting on.
In this pandemic, we are now truly seeing what a “key workers” look like, and they are the individuals that have been systematically targeted or undervalued for generations by successive governments.
This pandemic has illustrated that our immigration policies should not be set upon arbitrary decisions on who is the most skilled, or who will be the most profitable worker to have in our country.
Our next immigration bill needs to attempt to value an individual on how they can enhance our society, not judge them on the value of the wallet they bring with them.
The coronavirus is – in and of itself – a scary and life threatening virus. But if we see beating this virus as an opportunity to start truly coexisting and thriving as a community; united by our valuing of each other, and using that to collectively safeguard our human rights; then at least something good will have come from this most horrible ordeal.