While everyone watches the elections, the government pushes discriminatory new policing measures

Border control measures are being imposed on virtually every area of life in Britain

Image: Chris White

Shielded by a busy news agenda packed with election campaigning and EU debate, disturbing new government plans are breezing almost unnoticed through parliament.

The Policing and Crime Bill, deceptively dull in title, has so far ruffled few political feathers – but its policies have the potential to damage the social fabric of Britain.

As the Guardian exposed yesterday, the Bill would hand police powers to force people to declare their nationality upon arrest and in court. Failure to produce documents to prove nationality within 72 hours could result in a year in prison.

The only conceivable grounds on which officers could decide someone might not be British are their appearance and their accent – so what the government is effectively legislating for here is racial profiling. In doing so, it has received little challenge from the opposition.

We, and that includes the Home Secretary, already know that stop and search powers are used disproportionately against black and ethnic minority communities.

Making immigration officers of the police in this way would divide our society even further. And by making those who look or sound foreign feel obliged to carry their passports, it could create an ID card-like system by the back door.

The requirement to state your nationality in court has even more serious consequences for individuals. In a courtroom, stereotypical preconceptions based on nationality have the potential to colour how evidence is perceived, risking unfair trials that would undermine our internationally respected justice system.

The Government claims this is necessary to speed up the deportation of foreign national offenders. But to subject someone who hasn’t even been charged with a criminal offence to blatant discrimination will do nothing to speed up a process that could just as easily start at conviction, and do everything to undo decades of progress on race relations.

And amid a wider pattern of divisive and discriminatory legislation, these plans form just the tip of the iceberg.

In a barely-disguised attempt to allow boats of refugees to be sent back to where they came from, the Policing and Crime Bill also contains police powers to force ships to be taken to a port in England and Wales or anywhere else in the world and detained there.

These powers could see Britain flout its international obligations to refugees as well as the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Immigration Bill, currently being batted back and forth between the Lords and the Commons, has been described by ministers as an attempt to create a ‘hostile environment’ for undocumented immigrants.

By creating a criminal offence of ‘driving whilst illegal’ and escalating landlords’ obligations to check the immigration status of tenants, it will do just that – for all of us, not just migrants without proper papers.

Supported by Liberal Democrat and Cross-bench peers, Baroness Doreen Lawrence led the charge against the clearly discriminatory new driving offence but her attempt to scrap it from the Bill ultimately lacked the support necessary from the Labour Front Bench to defeat the Government.

And despite widespread condemnation of unlimited immigration detention, the official opposition again failed to capitalise on this rare opportunity to bring this abhorrent practice to an end.

The discrimination doesn’t stop there. The Investigatory Powers Bill, or Snoopers’ Charter, contains plans to make capturing communications from immigration detention centres routine.

In fact it seems legislation covering virtually every area of life is now being topped off with measures aimed at aggressively controlling Britain’s borders from the inside.

Such moves are in stark contrast with Britain’s proud tradition of separating policing from immigration enforcement and post-McPherson efforts to rid the police of ‘institutional racism’. If the government is allowed unopposed to keep pursuing these hostile policies, that progress could quickly unravel.

If we want to make our streets safer, every member of society must feel accepted and able to contribute. To build those cohesive communities and work towards a time when our appearance doesn’t hold us back, we mustn’t allow discrimination to slip into law.

Sara Ogilvie is policy officer at Liberty

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