Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Freezing immigrants' bank accounts makes Britain look more and more dystopian

Should the penalty for immigration infringements really be absolute poverty and exploitation? 

There’s a flashback in one of the early episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, the TV version of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, where June, the protagonist, tries to pay for a coffee under the new regime and her card is declined. She discovers that every woman’s bank account has been frozen, and she is now entirely reliant on her partner for money. Deprived of money, she realises, there is even less chance she can flee. It is a remarkable reminder of the way the state can control the population with the click of a button.

The government’s decision to force banks and building societies to freeze the accounts of failed asylum seekers, foreign national offenders and visa overstayers has a ring of The Handmaid’s Tale – only in this case, Theresa May really wants them to leave. As home secretary, she oversaw the creation of “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, including requiring landlords to check their tenant’s immigration status, and a “deport first, appeal later” policy.

There are four problems with this kind of measure, aside from making The Handmaid’s Tale look more and more credible and Theresa May seem more and more like its draconian enforcer Aunt Lydia. First, there is the question of whether the punishment fits the crime. Around half of asylum claims are rejected, and the legal battles are complex. The Home Office recently disobeyed court orders by deporting Samim Bigzad to Afghanistan (he spent days holed up in a hotel there before, in the glare of negative publicity, the Home Office agreed to bring him back). Should the penalty for being on the wrong end of one of these disputes be absolute poverty and starvation, not to mention being unable to pay for legal advice?

Second, there is the risk of over-enforcement, combined with a lack of accountability. Half of landlords interviewed about the immigration checks said they were less likely to rent to a foreigner, according to Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants research. Given private renters already struggle to receive basic rights, to whom should the foreign renter appeal?

Then there’s the banks’ existing record on blacklisted accounts. Banks do need to be able to freeze accounts – hey there, money launderers – but they also make mistakes. In 2016, Maajid Nawaz, the founder of the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam, who has advised Tony Blair and David Cameron, nevertheless discovered he was an international blacklist because of his support as a young man for a non-violent Islamist group. HSBC closed the bank accounts of Syrians in the UK en masse based on a risk assessment.

Third, one of May's few insights on immigration has been the widespread existence of exploitation and slavery in the UK. Employers that exploit workers already prefer to pay (very little) cash in hand. Traffickers demand free labour to pay back debts and accommodation costs. If vulnerable immigrants with an uncertain status are forced out of the visible economy, they are ripe for the recruiting by unscrupulous bosses. 

Finally, the problem with tinkering with the environment – as any climate change scientist knows – is that you can’t control the consequences. May’s measures seem designed to target a group of people without a voice while winning approval in the right-wing press. But for the reasons outlined above, sooner or later, one will be heard. Britain is not Atwood's Gilead, and the economy still relies on the work of immigrants. And if you are a highly educated taxpayer, and living in the UK holds the prospect of spending your evenings pleading with letting agents and banks, where you have to justify your existence because you are an immigrant, why on earth would you want to stay?

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.