Jay Kramer, Vice Chair of Hastings & Rye Constituency Labour Party and former Deputy Leader of Hastings Borough Council with responsibility for Equality, tells us about a recent HBC meeting at which Conservative councillors refused to agree to a clause allowing refugees to work whilst their cases for asylum are being considered, a process that can take years. 

Black History Month takes place in the month of October, so it was fitting that at the meeting of Hastings Borough Council held on 21st October (watch it here https://tinyurl.com/yyrx9flf), Cllr Judy Rogers should propose a motion to the council to celebrate difference, welcome diversity and adopt a revised Equalities Charter. In May, there had been worldwide condemnation of the murder of George Floyd in the US. The local Labour Party published a statement in solidarity with his family and pointed out that we have parallels in the UK with murders of Black people, institutional racism, the tragic injustice of Grenfell, the Windrush scandal and deportations, disproportionate police stop and search incidents, unemployment and health inequality.

Some of the Occupations of People Seeking Asylum

In moving the motion to council, Cllr Rogers was particularly clear that this commitment to equalities should not just be a “tick-box exercise” but fundamentally integral to everything the council does. It will be developed alongside partners from the statutory, voluntary, and business community through the Local Strategic Partnership. Cllr Rogers anticipated that the commitment being called for would achieve unanimous support, particularly because the Equalities Act ensures that public bodies must not discriminate in the provision of their services.

Councillors and members of the public viewing the virtual meeting were therefore shocked when an amendment was immediately put forward by a Conservative councillor to remove Point 3 of the motion: “We will continue to work as part of a City of Sanctuary to press local and national leaders to lift the ban on refugees being able to work.” As confirmed in the ensuing debate, the council had signed up to be a Community of Sanctuary in December 2017, committing to welcoming asylum seekers and refugees to Hastings and treating them with dignity and respect. The suggested removal of this sentence seemed remarkably perverse given HBC’s own wholly unanimous adoption in 2017 of this motion to become part of the national, and strictly non-party political, City of Sanctuary movement. 

Expert by Experience at the Lift the Ban Coalition Meeting

The arguments put by the Tory councillors displayed a dismaying ignorance of the issue of the right to work and were met with a succession of eloquent and robust responses. From Cllr Antonia Berelson:

“I question why, in the midst of a pandemic, you’d want to remove a workforce – a valuable workforce – nurses, doctors, cleaners, porters – why? Why would you want to dehumanise a refugee? The most dignity they can have is to be able to contribute to society – a valuable contribution. Why are you denying someone’s dignity? Someone’s essential humanity?”

In fact the Tory group appeared to be articulating a worry about wider aspects of asylum and immigration, echoing their earlier objections in July 2019 when the motion was put, and passed, for Hastings Borough Council to affiliate to the nation-wide Lift the Ban coalition and to write to the Home Secretary urging her to enable asylum seekers to work after they have been here for six months. Their reaction stands in stark contrast to the comments – including the moral case for the right to work – made by their fellow Conservatives in Conservative-led East Sussex County Council, who subsequently (in October 2019) voted unanimously, along with every single other councillor present, to support the right to work for people seeking asylum: a strong demonstration of the cross-party support found across the country for this specific change to Home Office rules.  

The Lift the Ban campaign has enjoyed notably strong support in Hastings, among both businesses and individuals

Furthermore, our local MP, Sally-Ann Hart, has indicated her interest in the rights of those seeking asylum or refuge, in the process of fixing what the Home Office now constantly admits is a ‘broken’ asylum system: to improve the situation of “the refugees, for whom we need to provide the best possible sanctuary. We need to safeguard, protect and, I would argue, expand refugees’ rights”. (Sally-Ann Hart, May 2020 – see also www.sallyannhart.org.uk/news/reforming-our-immigration-system)

Any notion of “best possible sanctuary” would necessarily be underpinned by the right to work for those waiting, often for years, for their asylum decision – and this would enable people to retain their dignity, contribute and pay taxes to our society, avoid the needless destitution into which so many fall and the criminalisation, if they are found trying to work illicitly, that can lead in turn to incarceration and deportation.   

The Lift the Ban campaign has enjoyed notably strong support in Hastings, among both businesses and individuals. Thus, overall, this dissension expressed by the HBC Tory group is out of step both with general local views, and with Conservative opinion as expressed in the county council and implied by our current MP.  It therefore seems extraordinary that they all voted against the motion for equality following the rejection of their amendment to remove the reference to HBC’s support of Lift the Ban.

Heartfelt support for the Equalities motion was repeatedly expressed from other councillors. Cllr Maya Evans, speaking as one of the few ethnic minority HBC members, described Black History Month as a time to “celebrate black lives” and to “educate ourselves about why the month exists” and about the reasons for such deep continuing structural racism in our society. She pin-pointed the critical importance of understanding how our own history as well as current world events, in particular the ‘war on terror’, impinge directly upon what goes on in our own communities – for example, the on-going rise in hate crime towards Muslim people, and disturbing levels of discrimination towards people of colour.

St Leonards Black Lives Matter Protest, June 2020

Her hope that this motion would lead to a “much-needed structural reform and a foundation to engage with our community” was echoed in equally strong terms by many others. But their collective call for unanimity in council support for this motion was ultimately denied. 

As a former councillor myself, I despair that the Tory councillors voted against a motion designed to promote equality in Hastings and ensure that the council reaffirms its commitment to combat racism and prejudice in all its forms, in order that every individual feels safe, protected and comfortable.  

In the next issue we will hear more from Jay Kramer and Felicity Rose Laurence on the work Hastings Community of Sanctuary are doing to raise awareness of the Lift the Ban campaign.

Stop Press: There is a Westminster Hall debate on the right to work for people seeking asylum on Wednesday, 17th November at 4pm.
We (HCoS) have requested that our MP Sally Ann Hart attends the debate. – Jay Kramer and Felicity Rose Laurence.

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