Windrush and the Hostile Environment
In November 2020, the Equality and Human Rights Commission held that the Home Office had failed in its public sector equality duty, which came into force in 2010, with its “hostile environment” measures (now also called “compliant environment policies”) towards immigrants, which were introduced in 2012. The Commission held that the Home Office had not properly considered its duties towards the Windrush generation, and the effects of those measures on them. The measures made it very difficult for irregular migrants to obtain housing, bank accounts or work, or to access healthcare, by requiring them to show papers they would not have, but many people were lawfully resident but similarly undocumented, and were therefore similarly disadvantaged.
Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement and the Internal Market Act 2020
Much of the publicity in late 2020 was however about the negotiations for a permanent, post-Brexit trade deal between Britain and the EU and Euratom.
The prospect of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was politically untenable: the border has more crossing-places than the eastern border of the EU. Such a border would also damage the continuing effectiveness of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace, or relative peace, after the Troubles. The USA had indicated that it would take a harsh view of any damage to the peace process and would not make a trade deal with the UK should that happen.
The Internal Market Act 2020 was criticised as it passed through Parliament in late 2020. It dealt with the borders of the different constituent parts of the UK. It was criticised because it opened a way for the UK to back out of elements of its treaty with the EU, particularly in order to deal with the internal Irish border. The Welsh and Scottish governments were concerned about its impact on their devolved powers. There was concern in the EU that the British government was giving itself the power to break part of the treaty it had signed with the EU, without the EU’s agreement, which would amount to a very big statement about the reliability of the UK government on the international stage.
The UK had already left the EU on 31 January 2020, but the Withdrawal Agreement meant that the previous arrangements about free trade and free movement held good until the end of 2020. A new deal was announced on 24 December 2020. It was publicised as having secured tariff-free trade arrangements.
In January 2021 the media reported Brexit as causing export problems because, although tariffs were not payable, customs paperwork had to be prepared and examined. Immediate casualties included fresh shellfish businesses in Scotland, who could no longer export sufficiently quickly to France to satisfy their buyers.
Under the “backstop” agreement with the EU, the internal Irish border was kept open. The customs border between the UK and the EU was affected by checks on goods moving between the UK and Northern Ireland. This meant that Northern Ireland remained within the EU for goods purposes, but that goods coming from the mainland UK became, in effect, exports from the UK and imports into the EU zone. The paperwork this caused meant that some UK products became too inconvenient to import into Northern Ireland, especially the EU requirement of veterinary certification for the import of chilled meats. The British Prime Minister claimed that this difficulty was the EU being too pedantic about the customs border, but the EU declined to let go of the checks. The date at which those checks would begin was delayed by agreement.
The date on which customs regulations would begin for imports into the UK was also delayed by agreement, from 1 July 2021 to 1 January 2022, to deal with the effects of the Covid pandemic.
There was also media discussion of the regularisation of immigration status of both British people resident in the EU and EU citizens resident in the UK.
Many British people living in the EU were reported as having failed to apply for the necessary status especially in Spain, and being refused re-entry if they left after December 2020. It was also reported that many more might have failed to register an application for resident status across the EU by whatever date the country specified for such applications (usually 30 June 2021).
Within the UK, millions of EU citizens applied for settled and pre-settled status. Not all of them were still living in the UK when they applied.
The effects of Brexit on the labour market attracted the most publicity because of a lack of fruit and vegetable pickers, and, by mid-2021, a shortage of lorry drivers to deliver food to shops. There were reports of EU citizens arriving in the UK to meet these needs but being turned back by immigration officials who did not accept, for example, that they had applied for pre-settled status and so should be allowed into the UK. There were also reports of long-term residents who were unable to negotiate the Home Office application system for status, some of whom were elderly and afraid for their future.
There was also no agreement between the UK and the EU for any provisions allowing musicians to undertake tours for paid gigs without unduly complicated paperwork, causing established performers such as Elton John to protest at the loss of opportunity for young people trying to establish their careers.
By the summer of 2021, there was rising concern about the numbers of EU nationals living in the UK who might not have applied for settled status, and also about a shortage of truck drivers, leading to difficulties in food distribution.
Also in the news were EU visitors being refused admission because they were suspected of coming to work, for example being au pairs, even for family members. Once free movement had ended, those who intended to work, study, marry or enter a civil partnership or obtain medical treatment would need prior authority for that, and would therefore be entering illegally if they obtained an ordinary visitor visa at the border. The publicity emphasised that the people who were refused entry on this basis were not turned back at the border, but were taken into immigration detention sometimes for several days, causing extreme distress.
The Covid-19 pandemic caused quarantine requirements for those coming into the UK, which were varied according to where in the world the person was coming from and according to the current level of infection in the relevant country.
As vaccination programmes proceeded, discussion began about exemptions from quarantine for those who were fully vaccinated, and so about what evidence of vaccination would be accepted. Evidence of full vaccination in the UK was accepted by July 2021, but what constitutes evidence of acceptable vaccination overseas is still being considered.