The NHS makes it to 65, despite endless reorganisations and increasing amounts of private sector involvement. (Got to tread carefully with what I say because I have some experience of the National Programme for IT, but this is in a personal capacity only). Meanwhile, something that’s been in the news recently is the idea of charging foreigners an annual fee for GP services. There are all sorts of reasons why this is a bad idea. First of all, introducing charges means introducing a charging mechanism. Sounds obvious, and of course it is, but it hasn’t been thought through properly. If some people are going to be charged and others are not, you need to find a way of proving that some people don’t have to pay. What form will this take? I don’t know, but whatever it is, it will be expensive. This also raises the risk of fraud. Since the Life in the UK Test was introduced, people have cheated in the test, got someone else to sit it for them, or produced fake certificates. Basically, if something has a cash value, people want it and don’t want to pay for it. How much would it cost to introduce a charging system and make sure it remains secure? It certainly won’t be cheap. Remember that this will have to check the eligibility of the entire population, whether or not they come from abroad.
Another bad thing about this is the impact on public health. Asylum seekers get free healthcare during their application process. Most of them end up in the UK because they pay a broker to send them somewhere, often with no particular destination in mind as long as it’s not where they came from. If they’ve spent days in the back of a lorry they probably won’t be in the best of health just because of the journey, and they may come from countries where things like yellow fever, cholera and dysentery are rife. Because of this they need healthcare: not just for their benefit but also to make sure they don’t introduce diseases into a population that doesn’t have immunity to them. These charges won’t affect asylum seekers (I certainly hope they don’t, anyway), but I have serious concerns that someone who isn’t an asylum seeker might have similar health problems but won’t or can’t pay the fee and end up infecting people. They will still get emergency care and certain public health cover, but it seems an unnecessary complication to differentiate between what’s covered and what is not. The current list of notifiable diseases is at http://www.hpa.org.uk/Topics/InfectiousDiseases/InfectionsAZ/NotificationsOfInfectiousDiseases/ListOfNotifiableDiseases/. The initial symptoms of most of them are very similar to flu. What happens if they’re thought to have something notifiable that turns out to be treatable with bed rest and lots of fluids, or if they haven’t paid to register with a GP, feel off colour, and then turn out to be a 21st century Typhoid Mary when they’ve infected loads of people?
The real issue with all this is immigration policies that have got completely out of hand. When the official Home Office Twitter account publishes a tweet like this there’s something seriously wrong:
There is sometimes an assumption that these policies will only apply to foreigners. Wrong. To avoid letting people slip through the net the only way to check is to ask everyone. To get a job you have to prove that you’re legally entitled to work. In the latest immigration bill there are plans to introduce a check for people wanting to rent accommodation. Why? If someone can afford to pay a deposit, produce references and provide a month’s rent in advance, what benefit will it bring if they also have to prove to a letting agency that they did not come from another country illegally? They are already liable to being deported if they have. I do think it’s about time more people stood up to the “send them back where they came from” crowd rather than coming up with more and more hysterical ideas. “You are wrong because…” can be a courageous thing for politicians to say (in the Yes Minister sense), but sometimes it needs to be said.
There’s one of those “share this photo” memes doing the rounds on Facebook where someone has put a stock photo of someone with wrinkled hands holding some coins next to a Daily Mail story about a family from Somalia, and added some inflammatory text suggesting that all pensioners get £6K a year while asylum seekers are given free houses. Like this:
Before going into the details, this is a classic example of a false dilemma or false dichotomy. It isn’t a case of state pensions or support for asylum seekers but not both. I could as easily do a different one where a very rich pensioner sponges off the tax payer while someone who just wants a better life after being persecuted is forced to live in a cardboard box.
Leaving aside the “generic pensioner”, it’s worth reading the original story at the Daily Mail to find out the facts of this case. It was published in 2010 so it’s rather old now, and it mentions certain key points that the meme image does not:
- The story begins “A family of former asylum-seekers from Somalia” (my emphasis). In other words, they aren’t asylum seekers. They have been granted asylum. As such they are entitled to all the same rights and benefits as our “generic pensioner”, including being able to apply for council housing if they want to. As the story admits, “Rules allow anyone who is eligible for housing benefit to claim for a private property in any part of the country they wish.”
- They were not “given” the house. It is rented and paid for through housing benefit. The rent may be high, but that’s down to the landlord deciding to charge that much and to allow it to be let out to housing benefit claimants. A lot of landlords are very strict about “no DSS”. As the story says, “The current housing benefit system was overhauled by the last government in April 2008. Labour Ministers introduced new caps on the amount claimants could receive, depending on the size and location of the property. But instead of bringing costs down, the new system encouraged many landlords to raise rents to the level of the maximum allowable”. In other words, not the family’s fault
- The family were granted asylum in 1999 and the mother has never worked since then. Could it be because asylum seekers are banned from working and she had a large family to look after once it was granted? I don’t know why the father lost his job as a bus driver but the story does admit that he’s trying to find another one and doing training to help him do so
So there. The story isn’t as straightforward as it looks. It has two main points: standard Daily Mail rhetoric against foreign people, and blaming housing benefit claimants for the decisions of landlords. The first is as much a feature of the Mail as Page 3 is of the Sun, and the second could be dealt with if we had proper rent controls that applied to everyone whether or not housing benefit was involved. Benefit caps and bedroom taxes are popular with the tabloids but they aren’t the right way to reduce the housing benefit bill.
What support do asylum seekers get then? The UK Border Agency website has a list:
- Accommodation including utility bills is provided, but there’s no choice about where it is and it will be in Scotland, Wales or the North of England. It will not be in London or the South. There are also strict rules about what behaviour is expected
- A cash payment of about £40 a week is made to cover all other living expenses
- Asylum seekers are banned from working. If their case takes more than 12 months, they are allowed to apply for permission to work, but there are strict rules about what they can do. Begging is illegal
- Health care and education for children under 18 is provided. This isn’t just to be nice: if someone comes from a country where there might be diseases like yellow fever, typhoid, you want to make sure they aren’t infectious. Apart from a few exceptions, all immigrants wanting to stay for 6 months or more are required to have a health check before being allowed entry, regardless of who they are. Local authorities have a legal duty to make sure all children below a certain age are educated and school is the usual way to do this
Asylum and immigration are often confused. However an asylum seeker is someone who flees their country to escape persecution while an immigrant is someone who enters the country for other reasons. While asylum seekers should seek refuge in the nearest safe country, often they make arrangements to escape without knowing or caring where they’ll end up. They don’t just seek asylum in the UK: a quick Google suggest almost everywhere has people claiming political asylum. However a story about Somali asylum seekers claiming refuge in, for example, Kenya isn’t exactly going to be headline news in the rightwing UK tabloids. Kenyan treatment of asylum seekers isn’t exactly pleasant so it’s not surprising people go elsewhere.