On 8 November, the night of the American election, and just a few months after the UK voted to leave the EU, Fitzwilliam held an ‘In Conversation with the Master’ event entitled ‘The challenges of immigration’. On the panel were Liz Barratt (History 1984), partner at the law firm Bindmans, and David Chirico (Trinity College, MML 1990), Barrister at 1 Pump Court Chambers.
This guest blog is by Conor Monighan (English 2014)
In both the American election and the EU referendum, immigration has been a key issue. Yet despite this focus, both democratic exercises have paradoxically lacked a proper debate about immigration.
Liz Barratt suggested this was because the practical realities have been lost under the emotion of the political campaigns. As she pointed out, the UK already has a points based system for non-EEA (European Economic Area) migrants. For both panellists, there was a contradictory attitude towards immigration within the UK. Whilst we expect the world to accept our teenagers embarking on their Gap Years, and give free healthcare for our ‘expats’ in Spain (a term which simply means immigrants for Liz), the UK is unhappy to reciprocate with other nations.
We are content for capital to come in freely via foreign direct investment (FDI), but not for people to enter as they wish. Both panellists would support the latter, advocating an abolition to border controls. This was reflected in David Chirico’s comment that “the ultimate aim must be to enable people to exercise their right to stand where they want to on the planet”.
David and Liz view their work as representing people who have fallen out of the system or who are victimised by it. For example, if the rules change so that an individual can’t stay as long as they had planned, David and Liz might be able to help. But new legislation is tightening up immigration rules every year, with an increasing responsibility on institutions like universities, banks and landlords to check the immigration status of those they employ or rent to. The automatic right of appeal has been removed, and it has been made deliberately difficult to comply with our immigration rules.
Political cunning has been deftly employed in order to harden public attitude towards immigration, according to the panellists. Famously the Human Rights Act was ridiculed by Theresa May at the 2011 Conservative Party Conference, when she claimed that one illegal immigrant was allowed to stay because of his cat. Similar tactics are being used within the court room as well. At first, only individuals who had committed an offence were removed from the UK and could appeal via video link. But now that courts have become used to the idea, even those who haven’t committed a crime are automatically deported before being allowed to appeal.
Wider changes to the legal system have left individuals open to abuse, because cuts to legal aid mean those who are struggling to be represented become targets for charlatan ‘lawyers’ who offer inadequate legal advice. This is not just a problem for people seeking to come into the UK, but also for British people. For those who form relationships with people who aren’t from the UK, only to have their loved ones removed by the authorities, the increasingly stringent rules become brutally clear. In Liz Barratt’s words, the authorities “have nebulous powers that people aren’t aware of”.
Both panellists stressed the limits of what they can achieve as lawyers. Whilst they cannot significantly change lives ruined by war, they can help make those lives a little better. As David Chirico said, “you can’t require gratitude”. He also pointed out that it’s also not usually appropriate to use individual cases to campaign against the injustices of the system, because to do so puts unfair pressure on clients. Working within the immigration rules can therefore be immensely frustrating, and attempting to change it from within is near impossible.
Perhaps most disturbing is that the political attitude towards immigration has been hardening across all political parties for quite some time. The dismissal of Charles Clarke by Tony Blair marked a watershed moment in British politics, at which expressing a desire to increase immigration was made impossible. In the EU referendum, this was demonstrated by the Remain campaign’s inability to find a position to combat the anti-immigration movement.
The event showed me that a discussion about immigration has yet to be properly begun.