Did Labour invent the ‘hostile environment’?

17 March 2022
What was claimed

The “hostile environment” was invented under a Labour Home Secretary.

Our verdict

Labour used the term in relation to enforcing immigration rules while in power. The Conservatives significantly expanded the scope of policies associated with the phrase.

As for all this stuff about the hostile environment, that was invented under a Labour Home Secretary.

Cabinet minister Michael Gove claimed in the House of Commons on Monday that the “hostile environment” approach to immigration rules was “invented under a Labour Home Secretary”. He made the comment after announcing a new humanitarian scheme for Ukrainian refugees. 

The term “hostile environment” refers to wide-ranging immigration policies, covering areas of life such as healthcare, education, employment and housing, which were designed to deter migrants without the right to remain from settling in the UK, and counter crime related to illegal migration. 

Mr Gove’s claim gained significant attention on news websites and social media, with some commentators—such as lawyer and campaigner Peter Stefanovic and New Statesman writer Jonn Elledge—claiming it was untrue. 

Labour did use the term ‘hostile environment’ while in government 

The term “hostile environment” has been used in different contexts over the years. In previous decades it has been used by the Home Office to denote dangerous overseas locations, and in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, was used to describe the government’s desire to make the UK a hostile environment for terrorists

More recently though, it has been used to describe policies aimed at making the UK a hostile environment for immigrants who have settled in the country without the right to remain.Here’s what we found when we looked for examples of the phrase being used under Labour:

  • In May 2007, it was used by then-immigration minister Liam Byrne. Announcing a policy of fining firms up to £10,000 for employing people without the right to work in the UK, Mr Byrne said: “We are trying to create a much more hostile environment in this country if you are here illegally.”
  • In February 2010, it was used repeatedly in a Home Office strategy document. The UK Border Agency (part of the Home Office) published its five-year strategy for “enforcing our immigration rules and addressing immigration and cross border crime”, with a foreword by then-immigration minister Phil Woolas. The document includes the phrase “hostile environment” four times, focussing broadly on reducing immigration-related crime. For example, it says: “This strategy sets out how we will continue our efforts to cut crime and make the UK a hostile environment for those that seek to break our laws or abuse our hospitality.”Asked about the use of the words “hostile environment” in this document in a 2018 interview, Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry replied: “The words are used but the culture was not.”
  • There are claims Alan Johnson used the term while Home Secretary—though we’ve not been able to find a specific example. In May and June 2018, the Conservative peer Baroness Williams of Trafford claimed that former Labour MP Alan Johnson used the term “hostile environment” while Home Secretary (a position he held between 2009 and 2010). We could not find a specific example of Mr Johnson using the phrase, though he was Home Secretary when the Border Force report was released, and in an interview with Andrew Neil in 2018 said he couldn’t remember everything he had said, when asked if he’d used the term. In the interview with Mr Robinson mentioned above, Ms Thornberry said “Alan Johnson first used it [the term ‘hostile environment’] in a speech”.
  • In 2009 a Labour peer used the term, though specifically in relation to people trafficking. Lord Brett said: “My Lords, we continue to make the UK a hostile environment for trafficking and to ensure that victims are protected.” 

Asked for comment about Mr Gove’s claim, his department, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, sent Full Fact four links, relating to Ms Thornberry’s comments on the Border Force report, Baroness Williams’ two claims that Alan Johnson had used the term and Lord Brett’s comment. We also contacted Conservative Campaign Headquarters and the Labour Party to ask about Mr Gove’s claim, but did not receive a response from either.

Hostile environment policies were developed extensively under Theresa May 

While the term “hostile environment” was used in relation to enforcing immigration rules under the Labour government, the scope of policies associated with the term were significantly expanded under the Conservatives. As Home Secretary, Theresa May openly described her pursuit of a hostile environment and led significant legislative changes which made it much more difficult for undocumented migrants to remain in the UK. 

In an interview with the Telegraph in 2012, Mrs May said: “The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration.”

The article goes on to state: “Work is under way to deny illegal immigrants access to work, housing and services, even bank accounts.”

In 2012 a new ministerial group named the Hostile Environment Working Group (later renamed the Inter-Ministerial Group on Migrants’ Access to Benefits and Public Services) was set up, including 12 government departments. The group was responsible for drawing up proposals which would limit illegal migrants’ access to employment, benefits and public and private sector services such as education and banking, and restrict rights of appeal against Home Office immigration decisions. 

Most of the group’s proposals became law in the Immigation Act 2014

This legislation required private landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants, introduced new powers to check driving licence applicants’ immigration status and prohibited banks from opening current accounts for migrants identified as being in the UK unlawfully. 

This was followed by the Immigration Act 2016 which, as a House of Lords Library briefing on the hostile environment sets out, built upon the powers of the 2014 act and reinforced measures related to “illegal working”. These included stronger criminal sanctions to deter illegal working and the statutory authority for a range of public bodies (such as local councils and the NHS) to supply nationality documents to immigration officers. 

The hostile environment policies eventually became synonymous with images of vehicles known as “go home vans”, which were driven around six London boroughs in 2013 and warned people who were in the UK illegally to “go home or face arrest”. 

These laws became the focus of renewed national attention when the Windrush scandal emerged in 2017 and it was reported that a number of citizens who had a legal right to live in the UK had been threatened with detention, deportation, demands to pay for healthcare and problems accessing employment due to being unable to prove their legal status. In 2018 then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid revealed that 63 members of the Windrush generation could have been wrongly removed from the UK.

In 2018 Mr Javid announced that he would no longer use the phrase “hostile environment”, which he described as “unhelpful”, and said a better term would be “compliant environment” .

Photo: Chatham House, via Flickr.

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