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How Theresa May’s “hostile environment” created an underworld

“People are here one day and gone the next.”

In March, a pregnant woman in her 20s went to the Metropolitan Police to report being kidnapped and raped. She was herself arrested, interrogated on suspicion of illegal entry into the UK, and eventually released pending a decision on her case.

This is Britain under Theresa May’s flagship “hostile environment” policy, of which she laid the foundations as Home Secretary, as far back as 2013. Doctors, social workers and teachers are forced to act as border guards. Every job application and health emergency could end in arrest, detention or summary deportation.

Under the hostile environment, fear and penury are systematically imposed on undocumented migrants, legal EU and non-EU migrants and Britons of colour, in an attempt to make Britain as cruel and unwelcoming as possible to those who do not ”belong” here. Post-Brexit, the hostile environment is spreading, jeopardising even those middle-class European migrants who previously thought themselves safe.

To the most vulnerable migrants in our society, however, fear and isolation have long been conditions of existence. David is a migrant worker from Spain who sleeps rough on a rooftop in North London, and a witness to the hostile environment’s crudest excesses.

“I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” he tells me, stamping his feet against the biting cold as sleet swirls around him through the streets of Camden. “Especially Eastern Europeans, sleeping rough around Charing Cross. [The police] come in the night with a printed list of names and dates of birth. People are here one day and gone the next.”

The sleepers disappearing in the night

For the last 18 months the Home Office has considered rough sleeping an “abuse” of European Economic Area (EEA) citizens’ right of freedom of movement, and sufficient grounds in itself for deportation. Prominent homelessness charities like Thames Reach and St Mungos played along, sharing data on EEA rough sleepers and handing homeless EU citizens into the tender care of the Home Office.

That policy was struck down by the High Court just last week, found to be unlawful and discriminatory. But hundreds, if not thousands, of rough sleepers who would otherwise have been allowed to remain in the UK have already been deported for no crime other than their poverty. And the hostile environment is still working in a host of other, more pernicious ways, beginning far before deportation takes place.

There are two key strands to this policy, cooked up by a body initially dubbed the “Hostile Environment Working Group” and made law in the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016. First, force employers, landlords, schools, universities, banks, doctors and local government employees to run their own checks, and hit them with criminal charges if they fail to report anyone they believe to be in the country illegally. Second, strip away welfare support and access to NHS and public services, making Britain so profoundly unwelcoming that people “choose” to leave of their own accord.

For example, since 2014, EEA migrants cannot access housing benefit, and must wait three months to claim jobseekers’ allowance. As David, the rough sleeper from Spain, points out, this is a lifetime on the street: “The people are desperate. They lose the option of working in a legal market, in a clean way… there’s no chance of a mortgage and [accessing support] services is even harder.”

Piecemeal work like handing out club flyers or selling black-market alcohol and cigarettes in the street leaves David with no chance of raising the deposit and month’s rent he would need to get a roof over his head. The foreign-born nationals who make up over half of London’s rough-sleeping population cannot normally access our hostel network, since it is paid for by the housing benefits they are not allowed to claim.

David is lucky if he can end the day with £15 in his pocket to get a bunk in a squalid room shared with ten other men. “We call that a holiday,” he says with a bitter laugh.

Free movement campaigners, on the other hand, call it “the creation of an illegal underclass of foreign, mainly ethnic minority workers and families who are highly vulnerable to exploitation and who have no access to the social and welfare safety net.”

The families slipping under the radar

Life is harder yet for those who arrived here irregularly, from outside the EEA. Nigerian-born Gloria has been in the UK for the better part of two decades on a long-expired visa. As we sit in a poky back room of the friend’s flat where she is currently staying, she explains that her primary school-aged kids were born to a British father and have lived here ever since.

Gloria has the legal right to remain in the UK while her status is being reviewed by the Home Office, but no way to work legally. “My children don’t have child benefits,” she says. “They don’t have anything. I can’t access any public funds, Jobseekers’ allowance, tax credits…”

If they can prove they are truly “destitute”, the mothers of British-born children can theoretically claim a bare minimum of social support. But when they go to social services for help they are met with a barrage of measures intended to drive them back to the countries they fled.

Women are regularly warned their children will be taken into care, threatened with deportation, or otherwise bullied into leaving the country, according to activist group North East London Migrant Action. They are subjected to harsh and invasive means-testing, refused help on flimsy pretexts, and left homeless by austerity-hit councils looking for any excuse not to offer financial aid.

This “gatekeeping” is the hostile environment at its most viciously double-edged. At the same time as blocking vulnerable women and children from accessing support which will keep them from homelessness, it uses their desperate cries for help as a cue to drive them out of the country.

Gloria herself was kicked out of accommodation for destitute mothers by Hackney Council: “They said my children are not in need. But we could have been in the street.” She also despairs over the four-figure cost of citizenship applications for her children. These applications are a money-spinner raking in millions for the Home Office each year, but another back-breaking burden for impoverished migrant mums.

David blames the fact that the government “lets private landlords put rent as high as they want” for driving poor young workers like him into the street. But those able to scrape together a few hundred quid to rent a room do not escape the hostile environment either. Landlords now carry out 10,000 “right to rent” immigration checks on their tenants every day.

Distressingly, 44 per cent of landlords say they are less likely to let to people who “appear to be immigrants”, according to a survey by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. A mystery-shopping exercise found 58 per cent turned down applications from a British Black Minority Ethnic tenant. The hostile environment creates a wider environment of hostility, which does not spare those who merely look like they might be migrants.

In turn, this atmosphere of hatred and mistrust fosters Islamophobia, racism, and public support for anti-migrant policies. It’s less a vicious circle than a perpetual-motion machine.

The academics caught in the net

“Monitoring via tenants’ records creates uncertainty, precarity, and continual violence,” US-born academic Sanaz Raji tells me. She herself has been the subject of a prolonged battle over her immigration status, forced to live off the charity of friends and constantly move from home to home, at times paralysed down one side by functional limb weakness. “I didn’t know stress could do that to your body,” she continues, at times choking back tears so as not to disturb the studious hush of Manchester library foyer.

Raji was involved in a drawn-out dispute with her superiors at the University of Leeds over the termination of her PhD. The university said the PhD was terminated because of poor academic progress. Nevertheless, the dispute illustrated the power of the hostile environment. Emails obtained via Freedom of Information Request showed Raji’s superiors at the University of Leeds celebrating the “good news” that “border control” might be throwing her out of the country. 

Sanaz sees her maltreatment as part of a wider drive to make academic institutions fall in line with the government. She recalls appealing to fellow academics from EU countries several years ago, and being disappointed with their lack of solidarity: “They said ‘I’m not worried about it, it’s not my issue.’ Now with Brexit it’s been spread out to them as well, and they’re quaking in fear.”

Brexit and the hostile environment

Irregular non-EU migrants suffer the most, but the hostile environment eats through society like a fungus, undermining those who thought themselves safe. Following Brexit, many British people with European and foreign-born spouses have also been hit by hostile environment policies, “tearing families apart” as the Home Office refuses to grant marriage visas on the most arbitrary of pretexts.

If the hostile environment is to be countered, Brexit must be understood not as a rejection of “civilised” or “cosmopolitan” European values by an imaginary white working class, but as a continuation and extension of hardline Tory policies which have long targeted working-class migrants.

In fact, it is migrant-led campaigns which are doing the most to improve conditions for British workers. This year alone, the International Workers of Great Britain union has won a series of victories against Uber, Addison Lee, and other unscrupulous employers.

By highlighting these struggles, campaigners can make it clear who the enemies of the British working class really are. If the UK Border Agency comes for the cleaners today, it will be coming for the lecturers tomorrow.

As in universities, so in schools: the Home Office gets information on 1,500 minors a week from the Department of Education, with the explicit aim of “creat[ing] a hostile environment” in the classroom. Since October this year, doctors and nurses are supposed to demand patients’ passports before treating them, with non-EU migrants and students forced to pay to access many life-saving services. 

The New Year will be heralded by checks on 70 million bank accounts, with banks once again being penalised if they fail to screen their customers or turn in the undocumented migrants they find. New post-Brexit proposals could see work permits for most EEA migrants slashed to just two years, in what is being described as “hostile environment 2.0”.

Yet those already here keep struggling on. There is no evidence that the hostile environment even does what it is supposed to do, with no increase in either enforced or voluntary returns since the hostile environment was first rolled out by Theresa May back in 2012.

The policy is touted as a deterrent. But EU nationals – mostly skilled workers fleeing the UK – account for three-quarters of the drop in net migration since Brexit, and far more people are still arriving in the country than leave it every year.

People fleeing war or abject poverty in formerly-colonised countries are not going to stop trying to get to Britain just because they can’t receive cancer treatment or rent a home. They don’t have these things in the Calais wasteland where many are sleeping, after all.

Despite everything the Government is doing to make their lives unbearable, migrants still want to travel here, to live and work, to play their essential part in our society. Sanaz is still fighting her case via the #Justice4Sanaz campaign: David is still curled up on a rooftop somewhere in Camden. All the hostile environment does is make life more violent and fearful for those already in the country.

Some names have been changed to protect interviewees’ identities.


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“We write about everyone that pissed us off”: siblings Daisy and Charlie Cooper on their hit hometown comedy This Country

The brother-sister duo behind the revolutionary BBC comedy on their childhood feuds, “the Mr Perkins scandal”, and stalking Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen in Cirencester.

The Crown Pub, which sits in the heart of Cirencester’s town centre, has been a favourite among locals for hundreds of years. For siblings Daisy and Charlie Cooper, it has particular personal resonance. “First drink. First date. First sick.” 28-year-old Charlie, in a bright orange Umbro sweater, leads us to a large wooden table hidden in a corner and stretches out his arms with pride. “There’s probably still microscopic particles of my sick in this table.”

It’s lunchtime, but as we’ve already descended into vomit chat, I get the ciders in – plus a lime and soda for 31-year-old Daisy, who is 37 weeks pregnant with her first child.

The sister and brother were born, raised and still live in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, and it was their time in the town that inspired them to write the BBC Three cult comedy This Country. In it, they play cousins Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe – unemployed, bored 20-somethings living in a tiny Cotswold village, where a lack of opportunities has pushed them into a state of arrested development.

Entire episodes revolve around arguments over who gets the top shelf in the oven, a local scarecrow festival, and Kurtan’s big decision over whether to study for a GNVQ in Swindon.

Both insist that truth is stranger than fiction: bizarre plotlines include a house getting “plummed” (think “egged”… but with plums), a schoolboy taking a wheelie suitcase to school every day, and a health drink pyramid scheme that sweeps the local community. All are based on real anecdotes from their hometown.

I tell them that the first season’s opening lines, which see Kerry and Kurtan show the camera crew all the different places in town they’ve spotted Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, made me cringe in recognition – I grew up in the Cotswolds too, and worked in a branch of Waterstone’s where Llewelyn-Bowen was a regular local celebrity. Charlie responds by whipping out his phone.

“I used to follow him round town, and just film him,” he says, laughing with sheer delight as he shows me not one but several videos of the Changing Rooms presenter roaming the streets of Cirencester in a long leather coat. “He’s in The Matrix! Wait for this gust of wind that takes his coat... Look at him! Who does he think he is? Brilliant.” Daisy lets out an exasperated, “Fuck’s sake…”

Nostalgic memories of Cirencester and its characters are not just a key part of This Country, it’s also clear they form a kind of shared language for Daisy and Charlie. During our chat, they argue over the details of specific childhood memories.

“Remember when we went to go see Grandad in his cottage?” Daisy asks. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I’ve just seen my first ghost.’ We said, ‘Well, what’d he look like?’ And all he would say was, ‘He ‘ad a face on him like he was damned for all time.’” The two fall about laughing. “What does that mean? What does that even mean?!”

Daisy, too, has seen a ghost. Charlie reminds her of that with delight. “She did! She came back one night going, ‘I’ve just seen a ghost.’ I was like, ‘Really? Well, what’d it look like?’ She was like, ‘Well, I saw it on the side of the motorway. It was a man… and it had a high-vis jacket on.’” He cackles. “Like, of course that’s not a ghost! That’s the fucking maintenance guy!”

Daisy and her real dad, Paul Cooper, as Kerry and Kerry’s father Martin Mucklowe. Photos: BBC

Daisy and Charlie grew up with their parents, Paul and Jill (who met at 16 and have been together ever since), in Cirencester town centre, “near the big Tesco”. Daisy, the wilder, older child, was skipping school and sneaking out to clubs at 13. Charlie, three years younger, was quieter, staying at home playing Theme Hospital and Football Manager for hours on end.

Like most siblings, they found cruel and unusual methods of winding each other up. Daisy recalls swinging Charlie’s dead goldfish in his face, seconds after solemnly promising their father she would break the news to him gently. She would persuade him that the birthmark on the left side of his neck was, quote, “a city for lice” – leading a panicked Charlie to try and scrub it off with a flannel. Or, perhaps most elaborately of all, she’d wake June-born Charlie on a crisp November morning excitedly wishing him happy birthday, pointing towards the balloons she had blown up and left on the stairs.

“I used to be like, well, it has to be my birthday – there’s balloons on the stairs!” Charlie says. “I would run down to the living room expecting to see a pile of presents, and there’d be nothing there. By the time I’d turn round, she’d be like, ‘Ha ha! You fell for it, you little dweeb!’ You used to be evil. That is evil! Isn’t it?”

They still argue on set. When our interview finishes, some bickering flares. (“You always undermine me!” “No I don’t – you undermine me!”) But, light bullying aside, their memories belie the great affection they had for one another: Charlie would “worry to death” about Daisy returning home safe, Daisy left smarting when she couldn’t impress her younger brother by smoking. “I always wanted him to look up to me, and he never did.”

And even when they weren’t getting on, their shared sense of humour kept them banded together. 

“What connected us, from a such young age, was always funny stuff,” Charlie recalls. “We could hate each other, but we would find the same things funny. It was so important.”

The pair would make stop motion films and home videos together, “that would always start out really serious, and then just descend into pathetic, silly shit”. They’d bond over the weirdness of B movies they found in their local video shop – from Critters to Meet the Applegates.

Their parents were unusually happy for Daisy and Charlie to hang back from school and work to do things they enjoyed more. Daisy remembers their Dad (who plays Kerry’s detached, criminal father Martin Mucklowe in This Country) watching the 2003 Jack Black film School of Rock, about a group of overworked schoolkids skipping lessons to participate in a local Battle of the Bands competition, and seeing him moved to tears.

“He was crying at the end. He turned around to me and my brother, and he said, ‘That’s the evidence, kids. If you put your mind to it, you can do anything.’ He was that inspired by the film!” she says. “You grow up thinking what your parents say is gospel. And then you start to think, ‘Hang on a second. Our Dad is completely fucking bonkers.’”

Neither thrived at their local comprehensive, Cirencester Deer Park School, which Charlie calls “the most uninspiring place”. They weren’t popular with the teachers, and say that despite the success of the show, they haven’t been invited back. “Not after the Mr Perkins scandal.”

Ah, the Mr Perkins scandal. In the first series of This Country, Kerry and Kurtan hear that their old teacher, Mr Perkins, is dead. Shocked into silence, there’s a long pause. Then we cut to them shaking up a bottle of Lambrini and chanting “He’s dead!” around the town in celebration. Mr Perkins was the name of a real teacher at Deer Park – the school did not see the funny side. Um, he’s not actually dead, is he? “No, he’s not dead,” Charlie says. “He is a twat.”

“But yeah, they said the show was disrespectful to Mr Perkins.” He pauses for a moment. “Which it was, but–” He and Daisy burst into giggles.

“It was!” Daisy laughs. “Massively! But fuck Mr Perkins.”

“He’s a prick,” says Charlie, leaning into my dictaphone. “I don’t want you to change the name, because I want him to read that. That was quite therapeutic. That’s the thing: writing about a town that you grew up in means you can write about all these fuckers that piss you off.”

Kerry and Kurtan celebrate the death of Mr Perkins.

I first meet Daisy and Charlie at their office, a small room above the Corinium Museum (which exhibits locally found objects of historical importance); we swap anecdotes about the people and places we have in common as we climb the narrow stairs.

Their workspace is at once bare and cluttered – a single decorative plate and a lonely looking teapot sit on an empty set of shelves, but scripts and notes are piled on the desk, as well as a taxidermy magpie wearing an Innocent smoothie bobble hat. Framed fan art and Kerry and Kurtan finger puppets and dolls are perched on the mantelpiece. A newspaper board poster, proclaiming “RAVE REVIEWS FOR COTSWOLD COMEDY”, is stuck somewhat lopsidedly to an otherwise blank patch of wall. “I nicked that,” Charlie says happily.

Ideas for the show first began to form when Charlie, a recent drop-out of the University of Exeter, was living with Daisy while she studied at RADA – sleeping on the floor of her “crappy halls in the centre of London”. They had even less money than most students, thanks to a sweat-inducing financial cock-up Daisy, still the less responsible sibling, made in her second year. When she first moved to London, she lived with a boyfriend, and when they split up RADA made arrangements for her to move into their halls, but asked her to find a cheap hotel for a week to fill the gap. Daisy paid £300 up front for a week’s stay in central London. “It was this penthouse suite in Marble Arch. And I thought, ‘This is really weird. This is too good to be true! But this is great!’” When it was time to check out, the hotel informed her that £300 was just the deposit. “The hotel was actually three thousand pounds – for the week. So my student loan was all gone. I had no money to pay the rent, to get any food, anything.”

The pair ended up with about £20 a week to live on between them. Charlie was in charge of the finances, only letting Daisy do the weekly shop once. “She came back with a bottle of wine, a packet of fags and Tom Hanks’ Big on DVD. I thought, how am I gonna eat that?”

With no money, no computer and no internet, the two spent all their time together, bored and homesick. One of their main two sources of entertainment was a portable DVD player, which they’d use to repeatedly watch the 1993 BBC Beatrix Potter animation The Tailor of Gloucester, the bizarre story of an aging tailor struggling to make a wedding outfit for the Mayor of Gloucester by Christmas Day, with the help of several mice and his reluctant cat. (This sends me into frenzied delight, as it’s a firm family favourite in my own house.) “We loved that, because it was twee, and it reminded us of home,” Charlie says. “Why is the Mayor of Gloucester getting married on Christmas Day morning?” Daisy asks. “Who’s gonna turn up? Why is this guy making The Mayor’s marriage waistcoat all on his own? And why is his cat such an asshole?”

The other was swapping anecdotes from home. “We’d talk about people we knew from Cirencester,” Charlie explains. “We’d try and make each other laugh about, you know, what they’d be doing that night or what they’d be having for their Christmas lunch.”

Those stories eventually turned into an idea for a TV show. When Daisy graduated in 2010, the two moved back home to their parents’ house in Cirencester, which was no less bleak: their Dad had been made redundant, the family downsized to a two-bed house. “So all the money was going on rent, and we’d have no money left over for food, so we’d go through all the cupboards,” Daisy tells me. “There was literally just tins of prunes from like... We just had to make meals out of what there was.”

She recalls the anxiety of the financial gamble of spending the family’s last £9 on a coach to London for auditions. With no money for the tube, she would walk from Victoria to auditions in far corners of London – in broken shoes, held together with sellotape.

Looking back, this desperate period was key to the show’s success. “We had nothing else to do, no plan B, we just had to pour all that anger and frustration into the writing,” Charlie says. “If we had had money, we would never have done it.”

Daisy and Charlie as Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe

It’s only a two-minute walk between the pub and the Coopers’ office – but that’s still long enough for them to be stopped by affectionate fans. “How long you got, Dais?” one shouts, pointing at Daisy’s considerable bump. “Oooh – it’s coming!”

The road to getting the show made was long – the first series was six years in the making – and not without diversions. There was the pilot that was a “Glee-type version” of the show. There was the production company who envisioned the show as a country bumpkin version of Lee Mack’s Not Going Out. There were those who wanted to get other actors in to play the lead roles.

Then, Shane Allen, the Controller of Comedy Commissioning for the BBC, picked up the show, and pushed for a mockumentary format. Charlie and Daisy were given producer Simon Mayhew-Archer and director Tom George to work on the full series – Daisy explains that the four of them work together, in Cirencester, on plots, character arcs and episode structures right from the beginning stages of writing. “They do feel like brothers, really, don’t they?”

Daisy and Charlie’s lives have changed considerably since This Country was made. At home in Cirencester, they’re both regularly recognised. Daisy tells me of her surprise when she was seated next to Kim Cattrall at an awards dinner, and the pinch-me moment of her hero Kathy Burke tweeting praise for the show. But they insist that practically and financially, their lives aren’t totally transformed.

“People think, once they see you on TV, that you’re a millionaire,” Charlie says. “We’re fairly comfortable for now.”

Daisy says the biggest change is “being able to relax”. She lives with her partner, landscape gardener Will Weston, who she lovingly describes as “a big oaf”. (Particularly observant fans might remember the first episode’s scarecrow festival is held in aid of “The William Weston Foundation”.) Their first child, a girl named Pip, was born on 4 January.

Charlie still lives with his dad, his mum, who he describes as “a mad bird woman”, and “all the parrots and the finches and the budgies”. “She’s literally just adopted a parrot called Sidney that’s got one eye, one leg, and has never eaten anything other than sunflower seeds his entire life.” Daisy says.

Kerry and the Vicard, Rev. Francis Seaton (Paul Chahidi), on the Vicar’s allotment

Beyond Daisy, Charlie, and Paul Cooper, much of the cast are locals: Kerry and Kurtan’s irritating friend Slugs is played by the real aquaintance they based the character on, after long, boring conversations with him in Poundland drove them up the wall. (In real life, Charlie insists, “He’s the same – annoying.”) For the second series, they hosted open auditions in the Cotswolds. 

Did they ever fear that the show’s focus on two fairly clueless working-class characters would feed into stereotypes about “lazy” poor people? “Not really,” Charlie says. “I think we always approach the show from truth.”

Both acknowledge that, especially in comedy, working-class characters are almost never written or played by people with much experience of financial hardship, or the areas where they’re meant to be from. “That’s when it becomes a stereotype. With our show, it’s all about attention to detail, and being so specific with the characters to the point where we’re working out what their favourite film would be, or what they have for their lunch. As soon as you’re not doing those things, the character’s not 3D, it’s not real. You have to be here to write the show.”

The four had five months to write the second series – nothing compared to the six years they spent honing the first series. Charlie and Daisy both felt the pressure. “You’re worried you’re not going to be able to produce the work that you did in the first series,” Daisy says. “And you just totally forget how to write.”

“The first series was like a perfect storm – it was so spontaneous,” Charlie reflects. “And then, for the second series, you’ve got to work out what made that series so good.”

The new series deepens our understanding of the show’s major characters. We learn more about which relationships are most important to the characters – we get a greater sense of the importance of Kerry’s relationship with her dad, and Kurtan’s relationship with the village vicar. Kerry even gets a secret admirer who sends her bizarre, submissive letters. “Which is actually based on an ex-boyfriend from uni who used to send me letters about him being an inanimate object,” Daisy explains.“‘All I want to do is be your footstool and you’ll put your feet up on me and we’ll sit there watching Masterchef.’ It was really weird. Mum found an old letter from him that said, ‘I just want you to tie me to a tree in the forest and leave me there.’ How is that sexy? How does someone possibly get off on that?”

We learn more about what they actually want from their lives (beyond a SodaStream). We also learn about the time Kerry started a local fight club and gave herself a black eye. And we finally learn where Kurtan gets all his No Fear t-shirts. Most obvious of all in series two is Kerry and Kurtan’s genuine sense of belonging in the Cotswolds. They love where they’re from. It’s clear that Daisy and Charlie do, too.

“It takes a long time to realise that you do,” Charlie says. “I was so embarrassed about being from the Cotswolds. I used to say that I was from London. Until you move away, and then you start looking back and you appreciate it.

“It took us a long time to be comfortable with where we’re from. Now, I don’t have any desire to move. I’ll stay in the Cotswolds.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.