DECENCY, civility, tolerance and respect. These are the British values we have grown up with, yet now find out that we are living in a “hostile environment”.
The term sounds as if it belongs on a battlefield, spat out in staccato tones by a war-weary major on a news report. Or some nightmarish vision of the future, a landscape left broken and barren by the onslaught of nuclear war.
It certainly sits uneasily in a democratic multi-cultural country whose welfare state and National Health Service was once the pride of the world. A country which welcomed those who fled from dictators in fear of their lives, and encouraged those from former colonies to come and settle and bring up their families in the so-called “motherland”.
Yet a hostile environment is what we face. And not just the countless Windrush families and other individuals with links to overseas who now find themselves unwelcome and illegal in a country they have called home for years.
According to reports, the term was first applied to immigration policy by David Cameron when he headed the coalition Government. As the idea gained traction, it became a kind of catch-all solution to crack down on migrants who were setting themselves up in the UK and illegally claiming benefits, healthcare and housing.
A nasty knee-jerk reaction to the growing popularity of Ukip in the polls at that time, “hostile environment” was regarded with dismay by many close to Cameron, yet he pursued his hard-line stance. Vans were sent out with loudspeakers telling those without the right to stay to “go home”.
After the 2015 election, measures to clamp down on the undocumented were tightened yet further. Rules were brought in on healthcare, bank accounts and rental tenancies. And no-one was safe.
In a hostile environment, love, marriage and family mean nothing. I personally know of one young married couple – he’s British, she’s American, they met online – who were forced to live in Ireland for several months so that some intricate hoop of immigration policy could be jumped through before the authorities eventually and grudgingly allowed them here.
Their baby son was dispatched to stay with his maternal grandmother for the duration, or face foster care.
“The hostile environment is actually two things,” says Adrian Berry, a leading immigration lawyer. “It is a series of legislative initiatives to make it much more difficult to lead an ordinary life in the UK, but secondly, a change in direction in the way the Home Office assesses individual people.”
And now, clearly emboldened by the fact that successive Home Office ministers have been allowed to get away with such a draconian approach, the concept is spreading to other areas of public and private life.
In fact, when I first came across the term, I imagined that it applied to the current state of the UK in general, rather than a particular group of people.
I spend a lot of time walking and driving around, talking to people and just sitting in places observing things. And the one thing that really worries me is the growing brutality of British daily life. It seems so hard, so uncaring, so unsupportive, I thought that some clever academic had coined the phrase to cover all its aspects.
Only yesterday I slowed down for a group of primary school children as their lollipop lady strode into the road. Did any other motorist? No. I counted at least five cars actually increasing speed to get past them.
I know it’s a long way from a suburban road in Barnsley to the Yarl’s Wood detention centre, but such lack of regard and respect is now commonplace.
In particular, the poorest and most vulnerable members of society are affected. Ask any charity volunteer about how the roll-out of Universal Credit has affected people and they will tell you that it has created a “hostile environment” in which pleas for help and understanding go unheeded.
John Nicholson, chair of Greater Manchester Law Centre, agrees that the two categories in this country who have been most demonised are migrants, who have been called bogus, and benefit claimants who are denounced as cheats and scroungers: “The way in which they are treated legally is very similar… it is a very similar arrangement that is taking place here for people who are seeking migration and people who are seeking social security, just the ability to live and survive.”
In other words, the harsh territory created by the hostile environment reminds us only of the yawing chasm that exists between certain Westminster politicians and the people they are paid to represent.
The lesson is this. If you create a hostile environment, as Theresa May and her ministers are finding out, you shouldn’t be surprised when it turns hostile towards you.