Imagine a prime minister who comes to power promising to reform the nation’s immigration system, yet does not know of the existence of one of the central planks of the system, and one in particular need of reform. Imagine Boris Johnson.
Last week, he appeared before the parliamentary liaison committee. Labour’s Stephen Timms asked about the predicament of a couple, with two children, in his East Ham constituency. The husband is not furloughed so has zero income. The wife is still working but her income is less than their rent. “They have leave to remain in the UK but no recourse to public funds, so they can’t get any help at all,” Timms said.
“Hang on Stephen,” the PM responded, “why aren’t they eligible for universal credit or employment support allowance or any of the other benefits?”
Because they have no recourse to public funds, a condition imposed on virtually all immigrants from outside the European Economic Area who do not have indefinite leave to remain here. They may have been working and paying taxes in Britain for years but they are ineligible for most benefits. The Home Office refuses to disclose figures but the Children’s Society estimates that a million adults and 142,000 children may be affected. The policy, introduced by Labour in 1999, is one of the most pitiless immigration rules and has caused particular hardship now.
And yet the prime minister seems not to know that it even exists.
It illuminates the nature of much of the immigration debate. Laws are passed as much for the optics as for the reality. Politicians often don’t know the consequences of those laws, or even that they exist. The ignorance is as shocking as the rules are cruel.
•Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist