After countless speeches, digital campaigns and a dedicated act of parliament, the government’s determination to “stop the boats” carrying migrants across the Channel is hardly in doubt. Public confidence that the job will be done is a different matter. So far, Rishi Sunak has succeeded only in raising hackles while advertising his impotence. He would not be the first Tory leader to fall into that trap. David Cameron famously pledged to cap annual net migration at “tens of thousands”; while the target was never met, it amplified concern about the issue, mostly benefiting campaigners for Brexit.
In pandering to immigration demands from Tory hardliners, Mr Cameron facilitated his downfall. It is probably too late for Mr Sunak to learn from that example, and he shows only determination to dig deeper into the mine of anti-migrant populism in search of campaign fuel. This week Robert Jenrick, a Home Office minister, set out the next stage in the government’s immigration clampdown. While the Illegal Migration Act targets foreign passengers on small boats, disqualifying them from asylum and committing to detain and deport them, the next campaign phase is a second front focusing on people who employ, house or otherwise abet illegal immigrants. As with previous measures, this is largely a matter of making things that were already illegal even more so.
Businesses that employ undocumented migrants are already liable to fines, and landlords are obliged to check whether prospective tenants have permission to reside in the UK. Now the penalties for failure to abide by these rules will be increased threefold and, for repeat offenders, tenfold. This might have some marginal effect in making life much harder for people already in Britain without the proper visa. But the intended deterrent for newcomers – the theory that “bogus” asylum seekers will think twice about coming to the UK once they learn about updated details of its labour and housing regulations – is fanciful at best. There is no evidence of the mechanism having worked so far.
A new focus of the draconian apparatus is the pursuit, by the so-called professional enablers taskforce, of lawyers and legal representatives “who help migrants abuse the immigration system”. This follows newspaper reports earlier this year of cases where solicitors had colluded in false asylum claims and wilful deception to get refugee status. Like other forms of fraud, that is already against the law. The difference now is one of increased rhetorical opprobrium, plus a dedicated taskforce and stiffer penalties.
The maximum jail term for conviction in such cases will be life imprisonment – longer than the 10-year tariff reserved for extreme cases of fraud; longer in fact than the 14-year maximum for indecent assault of a child. The maximum penalty need not be the standard, but it is still revealing that the government thinks lawyers who help migrants break the rules (in ways not yet specified) should spend so long behind bars.
This is criminal justice policy detached from any rational evaluation of harms. It is unhinged – a hysterical show of ferocity on a totemic subject where the prime minister is under pressure to prove toughness and unable to show progress. Above all, it is a symptom of a government that has nothing substantial left to say about the problems facing most people in Britain, while retaining the power to fill the void with rage.