“Our anti-migrant laws, based on enforced destitution, have been a long time in the making. We must commit to changing this pernicious system.”
Friday 13 December 2019 was a dark day. Like many people, I felt thoroughly depressed about the general election and fearful as to what is ahead. But something lovely also happened.
I am a social welfare lawyer and was contacted by a client I acted for about 14 years ago. I remembered her case very well: she had had permission to live in the UK but it had expired. She had a five-year-old daughter who was British. She was always going to be granted permission to remain in the UK, but in the meantime she was destitute: not allowed to work or claim benefits.
The case was memorable because it was the first case I ever had where a child was literally homeless. I had been practising housing law for many years and the housing rights of poor people had steadily deteriorated since I started out as a solicitor. But, the bottom line had always been that if children were involved, some form of temporary accommodation would be provided.
However, this client and her daughter had been sleeping on a night bus for the last few days. She had asked for help from her local social services authority, whose response was that it would take the child into care but would not offer help for them to stay together. The client, in desperation, decided that she had no choice but to place her child in the care of the authority and she returned to the authority to tell it this. The local authority turned them away.
The family was caught by anti-migrant laws introduced in 1993 (and embraced and refined throughout the Labour years); an immigration policy based on enforced destitution. Thankfully, there is also the Children Act 1989, which provides a safety net for children in need. Relying on this, we were able to force the local authority to provide accommodation and support so the family could stay together until my client’s immigration status was resolved.
Sadly, in the last 14 years, the incidence of homeless, destitute families has increased; it is now a daily occurrence to receive referrals from charities seeking legal advisers for such families.
On Friday, I caught up with my former client because she was seeking advice about another, much less serious, housing issue. She told me that over the last few years she’d worked as a special needs teacher and was currently employed as a probation officer. Her daughter was at college and also working.
So, what did I take away from this? Well, it clarified a number of things about some priorities over the next few years:
•First, I could only help this client and her daughter because of legal aid. We must fight to retain legal aid.
•Second, our anti-migrant laws, based on enforced destitution, have been a long time in the making and were upheld by the Labour government between 1997 and 2010. However Labour responds to this election defeat, we must commit to changing this pernicious system. Treating all people with dignity must be our priority.
•Third, migrants contribute enormously to our society and to our economy. We need this contribution.
•Finally, people are resilient and this gives me hope.