The Government crackdown on immigration will have serious effects on higher education, says Julian Gravatt. Press reports about the Queen's Speech said that there are two education Bills for 1995/96 (on nursery vouchers and GM school borrowing) but in reality, there are three. The Immigration and Asylum Seekers Bill and the associated measures will have serious effects that directly affect large numbers of people in education. The measures deserve consideration and they merit opposition.
The Government crackdown on immigration starts with the proposal that public officials be given a statutory duty to report on illegal immigration. It is unclear which institutions employ public officials and who is included in the definition (the Government has already stated that schoolteachers are excluded). Nevertheless there are worrying implications. Universities and colleges take time to build and maintain the trust of their students, pupils and parents. The role of unpaid Home Office agents will reduce this trust.
The proposal is unnecessary because it imposes legal obligations on colleges to do what they do already - which is to provide information to the Home Office on behalf of students in response to reasonable requests. These requests are conveyed openly from the Home Office to the college via the student. The fact that the information is increasingly used to refuse permission to stay in the UK has not led to any decline in the willingness of education institutions to provide the information requested.
The immigration authorities themselves have plenty of powers without needing a new one that will allow them to ask for information covertly from other public officials and threaten action if they do not get what they want.
The next group to be enrolled as partners of the Immigration and Nationality Department are employers, though in the light of CBI resistance, it is still uncertain whether this proposal will happen. The measure will no doubt help the immigration authorities investigate notorious employers of illegal immigrants (cleaning and catering companies, minicab firms, security guards). If the authorities are lucky, they will catch the employees at a well-known address - a famous restaurant or cleaners at a Government department - which will mean good publicity and a boost for morale. There are however questions about whether these are the right targets.
Will it be any surprise if some employers take the easy (and also illegal) option of demanding different standards from black recruits than from white ones? This may already be happening, because, according to the Department for Education and Employment's own research (sent to every college in England) "unemployment levels among ethnic minority groups were over twice that of the white population in spring 1994 I even when qualifications held and age were taken into account, people from ethnic minorities are more likely to be unemployed than white people" (Labour Market and Skill Trends 1995/96). Lewisham college has a significant amount of black students who have experience of difficulty in getting jobs.
The third part of the Government's parliamentary programme for immigrants is the proposal to withdraw benefits from asylum seekers whose application has been turned down while they make an appeal against the decision. This proposal will save a small amount of money but at a considerable human cost. Asylum seekers on further education courses will no longer be able to stay on their courses because they will not be able to afford it, particularly if the college charges a part-time overseas fee.
Those who have been in the UK for less than six months are unable to work; they are unlikely to have the family and support networks of more established residents and they may find it difficult to find a charity or trust with money to spare. The final group affected will be their children, who will no longer be eligible for the assistance (free school meals, uniform grants etc.) that is restricted to those whose parents are on income support.
The "white list" is the final proposal that may or may not become law. The fact that Nigeria was on a leaked version of the whitelist two weeks before their government hanged nine dissidents casts some doubt on the sort of intelligence that this government feeds into its immigration control process. It was only five years ago that the authorities detained numerous Iraqi and Palestinian dissidents using official information that they were supporters of Saddam Hussein. The Home Office may say it can identify countries in advance where asylum seekers have no fear of persecution. Do you believe them ?
The proposed Bill is the fifth piece of legislation on immigration in a decade and, although it may be amended, it marks another step in a process. In just 20 years, the UK has moved from being an open country to one which is very difficult to enter permanently. There is an argument that there are positive benefits for race relations in stronger immigration control but there is also a risk that an official culture is being created where it is quite acceptable for the police to ask a British car driver of West African origin for their passport before they ask for their insurance documents.
Tight immigration control may also affect the long-term freedoms of UK citizens to live and work abroad. Why should other countries go out of their way to admit UK emigrants when the Government has made immigration into the UK so difficult? It may not matter to you now. It may matter to your children or grandchildren in ten years' time.
Julian Gravatt is senior registrar at Lewisham College.