Letters: David Goodhart is wrong — and so is Peter Hitchens

"It is not just lack of resources which places the burden of proof on migrants, but the law — and that law lies at the basis of Home Office decision-making"

David Goodhart is wrong

David Goodhart’s article (“Wafted by goodwill onto the rocks of error”, December/January issue) makes a valiant attempt to defend the Home Office from criticisms following the Windrush debacle, but unfortunately makes some errors of his own.

First, it is not just lack of resources which places the burden of proof on migrants, but the law—and that law lies at the basis of Home Office decision-making. So long as the burden of proof lies entirely on an applicant, and specific documents are required to establish entitlements to remain in the UK, to work, obtain medical treatment, etc, a person without those documents is for all practical purposes “illegal”.

Second, the Home Office “bureaucratic nightmare” did not just affect the Windrush generation. Lamentable IT failures, poor record-keeping, administrative incompetence resulting in two declarations of “not fit for purpose” in 20 years—all amount to culpable negligence in relation to migrants.

Of the more than a million estimated unlawful migrants in the UK, possibly half of them are family members of British and settled people unable to afford the fees to regularise, or people who have made a tiny mistake in a complex application, or failed asylum-seekers faced with going back to a country everyone accepts is dangerous. “Hostile environment” measures don’t work against such people. Goodhart suggests that an increase in voluntary returns may show that the hostile environment is succeeding. Sadly, at least some of those who have left have been my clients, ground down by years of Home Office refusals and delayed appeals, who have given up on ever living with their British spouse and children—rather than the nasty drug-dealers or chancers everyone hopes would be encouraged to leave.

British voters, including me, want a well-run, effective border control system. But no one would propose criminalising landlords and employers for providing services to an unlawful migrant identified by Home Office records with over 10 per cent errors. No one would restrict bank accounts or driving licences on the basis of immigration status. When the Home Office takes over a year to decide a case, during which the unlawful migrant may not work, why shouldn’t he use the family car to do the supermarket shopping? Should we criminalise unlawful migrants for shopping in Tesco’s—or criminalise Tesco’s for selling food to them?

David Goodhart is right: it is difficult to devise a humane non-racist and effective system of internal controls without requiring UK residents to hold formal ID. My own conclusion is that since a national ID card system has been formally rejected by both major political parties, we have to accept an alternative based on a shared burden of proof; flexible documentary requirements and broad-brush decision-making aimed at enabling regularisation rather than meeting spurious deportation or removal targets. Anyone who has satisfied an acceptable immigration policy should not be defined as “precarious” and placed on a grinding, expensive route to settlement, but integrated as rapidly as possible into British civil society, to encourage genuine democratic solidarity between citizens and non-citizen residents.

Sheona York, Kent Law Clinic, Canterbury

So is Peter Hitchens

Kit Wilson’s letter (“Down with tribalism”, November issue) is one of the best things I have seen in print. In the same spirit, for the moment as a small-l liberal, may I respond to Peter Hitchens’ article (“The delusions of literary dystopias”)?

Pullman, Atwood and Harris do not aim to develop an academic critique of current social trends; they do not need to acknowledge nuance and complexity, or make fair and balanced judgments. They are just writing stories, making things up—appealing to our imaginations not our intellects. They need to hold the attention of a large readership (as indeed does Hitchens), so they simplify, intensify, dramatise. Their references are Christian merely because that is the dominant religious tradition of the societies to which they and their readers belong; if they were writing for Saudi Arabia or Myanmar the references would naturally be Islamic or Buddhist.

Hitchens makes some important individual points which it would benefit us liberals to reflect on. But overall his approach is too rhetorical and too partisan; there is even a hint of victimhood. Whether in fiction, journalism or academia, nobody is waging war on Christianity. The issue is neither Christianity nor any of the creeds as a whole, but certain of their manifestations. For example, it is possible to be outraged by the style of Roman Catholicism prevalent until recently in the Irish Republic, without dismissing all Catholics as life-denying oppressors; the protestantism of Rowan Williams is a far different thing from the debauched puritanism we see all too often in the USA; and Ismaili and Sufi strains of Islam are unrecognisably distant from Salafi and Deobandi.

Of course Pullman and the others are not just entertainers, they are serious, thoughtful people. They illustrate for us how religion can be used to control and oppress, to deny essential human values. They too may be guilty of viewing religion too broadly, as a vast abstraction, but they are not “deluded”. Yes, many of my fellow liberals have reacted to these fictions over-emotionally and simplistically; but looking at Russia, Poland, and Hungary, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Pakistan, India and Myanmar, is our anxiety at the growing misuse of religion not justified?

Robert Bunting, Shropshire

Gut reactions

In response to Rachel Kelly’s thoughtful piece (“In the bleak midwinter”, December/January) on mental health, research is currently underway to investigate the link between mental health and the micro-biome. Micro-organisms both secrete and react to the neurotransmitters—e.g. serotonin and dopamine—with which we think. Indeed, there is more serotonin in the gut-biome than in the brain. The gut/brain axis exists; a “gut-reaction” is a reality. Antibiotics reduce the variety of gut organisms. Without the provision of a pro-biotic and counselling on the importance of a pre-biotic diet, patients with a therapeutically restricted biome easily become dependent on foods that deliver instant energy. It has been said that sugar is more addictive than cocaine.

My own opinion is that evolution is organism—not gene—driven and that the ever-adaptive immune system (of which gut-organisms constitute the driver) is the crucial link between parent and offspring. On this analysis, you cannot separate nature and nurture. Crucially, with our ever present gut-reaction to our own thoughts we have (volitionally) left behind energy-expensive instinct and developed energy-efficient, self-conscious, free will.

Christine Wheeler McNulty, Hertfordshire

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