Labour politicians in South London have successfully changed council policy affecting vulnerable migrants in their borough last night. Cllr Jack Buck explains how.
Sometimes as a Labour Party member, officer of a Constituency Labour Party (CLP), or even as a Labour councillor you can be left feeling powerless to change the discourse which is destroying the lives of vulnerable people in our communities.
The Conservatives have set up the state to be hostile to working class people, whether they be ‘Just-About-Managing’ families who now have to exist on Universal Credit, or young people who’s education fees have spiralled, who’s job prospects have dwindled and who have had any access to help from the welfare system withdrawn. Or whether they be older people who no longer get the integrated social care and excellent NHS services previous generations had come to expect.
But perhaps more than with any other group, this government has established a system that discriminates and destroys the lives of migrants.
This system has a name – it’s been known as the “hostile environment”.
it’s a name which has come to epitomise everything that is wrong with this government. A name which the Tories picked specifically to describe a political ideology designed to scape goat migrants and people of colour. And outside of government it can feel like we are powerless to do anything about it.
But in Southwark we have decided to do something different, we’ve decided to fight back.
The hostile environment isn’t just a policy as a whole. It reaches into diverse areas of civil society, into our daily lives. And in Southwark, the hostile environment had encroached into a space which our council had inadvertently, and with positive intentions, enabled.
I’m speaking specifically about the employment of embedded Home Office staff, whose jobs it is to sift through the bureaucratic mess that is the paperwork created to assess the needs and care provisions of vulnerable migrant adults and children. Councils have to assess these needs because, although the government talk tough on immigration, it is still a legal requirement for local authorities to provide for vulnerable migrants where central government do not.
The very same local authorities who the Conservatives have cut to the bone are the local authorities who have to put a band aid on the Home Office’s broken hostile environment policy. It is nothing short of a disgrace.
And as an easy out to local government the Home Office have offered councils a trained Home Office employee with full access to the visas and immigration system.
A tempting offer when finances are being squeezed and the budget allocated to the care of migrants (No Recourse to Public Funds – NRPF) has been growing due to the very same hostile environment policy the government has implemented.
However, we know the fear that migrants live in under this government.
There are daily attacks in the right wing press, ‘go home vans’ paraded around diverse communities and the Conservatives stoking anti-immigrant sentiment to distract desperate people from the real economic injustices which are affecting people’s lives. In this context it is simply not enough to manage a corrosive and morally repugnant system.
That’s why campaigners, councillors and local community groups came together to raise the issue of Home Office staff in Southwark council. Making the case that we should be doing everything we can to distance ourselves from the hostile environment, and make a clear and unequivocal statement that migrants are welcome and safe in our borough.
That statement would include an immediate halt to the use of the embedded Home Office officer in the council followed by a deeper review of our NRPF department, to see how we can build a system that supports and encourages migrants to the full.
And I’m thrilled to say that on Monday we won the debate, and now our council and our local Labour Party will go about dismantling the small piece of the hostile environment that is in our control.
It is no silver bullet for the thousands of desperate migrants in our country.
But if every Labour council and every Labour member is hostile to the hostile environment we might just make our society a slightly better place.
Jack Buck is a Labour Councillor for Faraday Ward, Southwark, South London.
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