Ripping into a flawed consultation attached to a despicable policy proposal that papers over institutional and political failings
Strong words from that summary alone.
But why? And where do these strong words stem from? The first part of this blog focuses on the policy – and why I am opposed in principle. The second part focuses on the weaknesses of the policy option – why they should have chosen a harder decision. My third point looks at the consultation – and why the Coalition is at serious risk of a judicial review if they do not withdraw this consultation.
My previous blogpost picked up on a tweet from the Home Office’s official Twitter account. Spotting it on the bus back from an event in Cambridge, I started planning in my head how I was going to unpick that blogpost in relation to the civil service social media guidance – that I had a hand in creating. In my research for that blogpost, it became clear what the controversial tweet was posted in support of. The Coalition will be introducing a new Immigration Bill into Parliament very soon. In that bill will be proposals to require landlords “to conduct immigration checks on tenants, with penalties for those who provide rented accommodation in breach of the new requirements“ <- Click for a direct link to the consultation documents
“Oh Hai Puffles’ Bestest Buddy. That flat in the shop window? I’m sorry – it’s just been let. We’ve not gotten round to taking it out!
The simple reason why this policy proposal is despicable is that it creates an economic incentive for landlords to undertake racial and religious profiling of potential tenants. Anyone who doesn’t look and sound White & British is a potential financial risk. Therefore in order to minimise the risks, the incentive for potential landlords and letting agents is simply not to bother with those that don’t fall into that category.
“Isn’t that illegal?”
Absolutely – and it has been since 1968. But how do you go about proving beyond reasonable doubt? Chances are the people who are most likely to be discriminated against are people who are least able to demand their legal rights be upheld.
I know what it’s like to be refused accommodation on grounds of skin colour: it happened to me. If it can happen to someone who was born and brought up in the UK, who is educated to post-graduate level and has worked in the civil service interacting with ministers and senior civil servants, it can happen to anyone. This is the reason why I am angry about these horrible proposals: it creates an economic incentive for landlords to act in an institutionally racist manner.
Why would ministers even consider such an horrific policy?
Because they are Tories? Because they are racist? Actually no. For me it’s a reflection of the lack of diversity in Westminster across the board. Age, gender, orientation, ethnicity, religion, ability, economic & family background – you name it. Every time I have been into the Palace of Westminster I have been struck by the amount of very smartly dressed smartly-spoken young people there have been – many on internships or as lobbyists. The lack of diversity is painful to witness. You then have the professional lobbyists and the political journalists there too. Given that few people can afford the sorts of long term unpaid internships, it’s not surprising that there is a lack of diversity in those Westminster circles.
To succeed what few paid jobs are available, inevitably those that have spent time in political internships have a greater wealth of experience to draw from – thus are more likely to be selected. Given that lobbying and journalism are also increasingly exclusive professions (have a look at the diversity of backgrounds and experiences people in the world of professional lobbying and political journalism have), you end up with a bubble. The Westminster bubble.
It’s from that bubble that such policies can be both formulated and progressed. In an open and diverse world, such proposals would have been shot out of the water very early on – chances are by someone who had experienced or had seen examples of such discrimination. Or at least someone with the awareness that this was a risk. That the proposals got as far as formal consultation stage is damning of both Whitehall and Westminster.
Were there other options?
The first thing to look at is the problem the Coalition is trying to solve: Illegal immigration.
The problem the Coalition faces is a problem the political establishments of the Western World face: the consequences of globalisation and economic neo-liberalism. Thatcher and Reagan unleashed the forces of globalisation in the 1980s. The International Organisation on Migration (of which the UK Government is a member state of) states the following:
“The total number of international migrants has increased over the last 10 years from an estimated 150 million in 2002 to 214million persons [in 2010]”
Managing migration is an international issue. It’s not one that can be solved by the UK alone. I’m not going to go into a detailed look at UK migration policy, but wanted to make the point that this is a global issue, not one that the UK is uniquely having to deal with.
Papering up the failings of repeated failings at the Home Office and its agencies over the years
This is the crux of the issue: A dysfunctional department of state – the words of the Home Secretary in 2006. (Click on the videolink on the right of that old web page to get the BBC video report). If you want the full transcript into what the Home Office was like in the words of the Home Secretary in 2006, read this.
But wasn’t that in 2006?
It was – and Labour had two further home secretaries before losing the 2010 General Election. The Coalition came in with its big programme of cuts – one which led to it being criticised by the National Audit Office in 2012. See the NAO’s report here, and the BBC news report from the time here. Thus my contention is that failures of the Home Office and its agencies – not helped by pressure from The Treasury over resources and spending – have led ministers to look elsewhere to deal with issues around illegal immigration.
Hence targeting landlords?
Exactly – but they haven’t thought the policy through in terms of UK public administration. For a start, the policy portfolio covering housing and landlords does not rest with the Home Office. It rests with the Department for Communities and Local Government. This meant they had to get agreement from the Housing Minister to go ahead with this policy. But there’s a further issue: Devolution
Why is devolution a problem?
Borders and immigration are policy areas owned by the Home Office – ones that apply to the whole of the UK and set in London. Housing policy on the other hand is not. Legislation to do with landlords as far as Scotland is concerned is a devolved issue. It is for the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament to decide what regulations they want to impose on landlords. Thus you potentially have a political impasse. The UK Parliament can pass legislation on borders and immigration that apply to the whole of the UK. The UK Parliament cannot do the same with legislation that applies to landlords. Such legislation would only apply to England – and possibly Wales and Northern Ireland. It would not apply to Scotland unless Parliament made changes to existing legislation regarding the powers of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish executive. In an atmosphere in the run up to the Independence Referendum? Madness.
The Equalities and Human Rights Commission will be watching out for this like hawks circling the rabbit burrows. As I’ve set out in the principles above, I would be astonished if an equalities impact assessment (mandated by the Equalities Act 2010 for any new policy proposals) came to any conclusion other than such proposals would disproportionately impact on people from non-White backgrounds. Any attempt to whitewash/place a fig leaf of an assessment over the policy would more than likely be challenged by the EHRC – as would be their duty in such a situation. Thus ministers would be compelled to come up with alternative proposals unless they wanted to fight it through the courts – as previous policies have been challenged in the High Court under equalities legislation.
My conclusion therefore is that the policy itself is unworkable. And that’s before we’ve even looked at the official consultation.
“Yeah, well…it’s out to consultation and they’re going to go ahead with it anyway”
Not if the consultation document looks like this. This has to be one of the most appalling of consultation documents I have ever seen come out of Whitehall, and it does a discredit to the civil servants that were pushed to publish this.
The blame here lies entirely with ministers. When a consultation document is published, it has to be signed off by ministers. When it is a consultation document on a controversial a policy as immigration and border controls, it is not the sort of document that is a run-of-the-mill thing. This is a document that would have had a lot of people fairly high up looking at it. And if it didn’t, it should have done. Finally, the minister responsible – most likely Mark Harper MP would have had to have read through and signed this off. As a consultation document, this is not the sort of thing a Home Secretary should be looking at and signing off. Consultations are standard parts of the policy cycle. Consultation documents need ministerial approval but this is the sort of thing that cabinet ministers rightly delegate to more junior ministers. Criticism for the Home Secretary can be apportioned for the policy – which given the cross-departmental nature of it may well have gone to a cabinet committee too. Something for the Liberal Democrats to consider.
What’s wrong with the consultation?
Annex B – page 54 has the questions. There is also a link to an online survey from the main consultation webpage (it’s about halfway down and is a Surveymonkey questionnaire) that a number of Puffles’ Twitter followers completed and reacted with horror and outrage. Points included:
- Not being able to make clear their opposition to the policy in principle
- Being asked questions that appeared to have nothing to do with the substance of the policy – for example asking about what state benefits respondents received
- Being asked leading questions
- Being presented with a set of options that did not include ones for their opinions – ones that seemed to railroad people into backing a policy that they did not
How was it that such a poor questionnaire was posted?
This underlines the importance of planning – and getting the advice of specialists at the design stage. Did the Home Office policy unit concerned seek the advice of one of their qualified statisticians that they have in the department? If not, why not? Having met a couple of statisticians that worked in the Home Office in my days in the civil service, absolutely not would they have allowed such a consultation to have been published. They were some of the most talented of civil servants I knew at the time. They would have whistle-blown. The specialist professions in the civil service have a strong sense of integrity. My instinct is that such professionals were somehow bypassed in this case rather than being forced to/choosing to approve a consultation as poor as this.
“If I want to complain about this consultation, who do I contact?”
“If you have a complaint or comment about the Home Office‟s approach to consultation, you should contact the Home Office Consultation Co-ordinator, Adam McArdle, who can be contacted at: adam.mcardle2 [at] homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk”
See the paragraph at the end of page 52. If you are going to complain, please don’t give Adam McArdle a kicking over it. He’s not responsible for the policy. He’s also not responsible for the consultation detail. His role is about the co-ordination of consultations within the department in general. So if you are going to complain, please be polite and courteous to him. Save your anger for the politicians. They are the ones responsible for the policy.