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The Home Secretary has dropped the ‘hostile environment’ label. But fixing the damage won’t be so easy

4 min read

The culture that has been allowed to seep into the fabric of many of our public institutions should shame us all. Putting it right will take more than warm words, writes Lord Bassam

The government must now regret the day that they dreamt up the expression ‘hostile environment’. In the wake of the Windrush scandal, the policy of being hard on anyone deemed ‘illegal’ or without documents proving citizenship has rapidly unravelled. And so it should.

The new Home Secretary Sajid Javid, presumably fearing the impact of the policy on the Tories credentials as a more multiracial party in the Theresa May era, has been rapidly distancing himself from the term.

The policy is a stain on our country’s international reputation for fairness and moreover goes to the heart of the reputation we once had for providing a safe haven and home to people dispossessed.

That as a deliberate act of government creating a policy called ‘hostile environment’ seems odd in itself; cold, politically calculating, designed for effect. When I think of the expression it conjures up ideas of war zones, areas of environmental degradation or places where no one or any person can live.

So to adopt the term to be used as a policy relating to immigration and where race plays a part is even more awful. What can ministers and in particular our Prime Minister have thought they were doing and more particularly why?

So what is the history and what was the purpose of the term? It seems it was dreamt up as part of the Cameron response to UKIP and to somehow demonstrate that his government was getting to grips with the ridiculous target they set to bring immigration down to the ‘tens of thousands’.

As Home Secretary Theresa May readily embraced the concept when it emerged from a Cabinet Sub Committee. I was a Home Office minister during Jack Straws tenure and I find it hard to believe that officials would have advised on a specific target – migration and asylum targets are notoriously hard to match because so many factors are involved in driving the numbers.

Weirder still was the mobile billboard campaign of 2013 that came with the adoption of the policy, which apart from its offensive language only acted to highlight the government’s failure to grapple with a problem of their own imagining.

The new Home Secretary’s moves to defuse the ‘hostile environment’ issue are of course to be welcomed, as are the commitments to compensate and investigate the appalling Windrush cases where people have been deprived of their home, the job and access to medical care and benefits.

That the ‘hostile environment’ policies since 2012 have seeped into the fabric, operation and culture of many of our public institutions shames us all. It is right that these policies are now being scrapped as their appalling implications have been realised. It is also right that government has apologised.

However for me that is not enough. There remains a big question over what replaces the policy, the racial stereotyping it must have formed part of and the loss of trust it has engendered in many of our communities. I want to know from ministers right across our public services how they intend tackling this. It will be no easy task and they need to convince a sceptical public that they have a plan. Warm words will not suffice.

There is a bigger opportunity hidden in this policy disaster. A government that had a broader vision could start afresh. It could set itself a goal of taking race out of its political calculations. It could, when it eventually brings forward an Immigration Bill, set itself the task of promoting fairness in the system without playing at dog whistle politics or trying to appease the politics of social division and racism.

Fundamentally this is where both the Cameron and May governments have gone wrong. Honesty about the country’s labour needs, about the impact of migration at a time of austerity, could have helped avoid the policies that led to a hostile environment strategy and the fear of UKIP that triggered the rush to a referendum on the EU.

It didn’t have to be this way and what we should now do is begin to reshape and rethink the debate that is needed so that absurd policies like ‘hostile environment’ don’t rematerialise under a different guise in the future.

Lord Bassam is a Labour peer and former chief whip. The debate on the impact of the hostile environment policy is on Thursday 14 June. 



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