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- Author or Editor: Joe Tomlinson x
Robtel Neajai Pailey is a Liberian academic, activist, and author, currently based at the London School of Economics and Political Science.1 Since 2006, she has applied for and obtained a range of visas for the UK, including as a tourist, a student, and a skilled worker. Pailey made several of her applications from the US, where she is a permanent resident. The application process was costly and a bit intrusive, but on the whole she felt the experience was ‘relatively smooth’. When Pailey applied for a visa from Ghana in 2018, however, she bore significant additional costs and delay. Between the Home Office, the British High Commission in Ghana, and the local visa application centre, no one seemed to know the status of her application or the location of her passport. The delay forced her to cancel a different trip at substantial personal cost, and her request for a refund of the application fees was refused. She described the experience as, simply, ‘the absolute worst’.
The three systems we have explored in this book barely scratch the surface of automation in government immigration systems. They are systems which have, for various reasons and through various means, come into public view. But automated systems are being developed and deployed in many more corners of the immigration bureaucracy. The current trajectory, both in the UK and around the world, is toward increasingly automated immigration systems.
From the transitional and experimental phase that we are currently in, it is clear that automated immigration systems can bring benefits. For example, automation has allowed millions of people to get their status under the EU Settlement Scheme quicker than would have otherwise been possible, reducing delay and associated anxiety. These systems also seem to have some success in reducing decision-making costs. However, automated systems also pose clear and real risks of failure. These failures can occur, and have already occurred, at both individual and systemic levels, with disastrous effects for individuals and their families, as well as wider society and the economy. The resultant harms must be taken seriously, and certainly more seriously than the Home Office appears to have taken them to this point.
Public understanding of the risks posed by COVID-19 understandably has focused squarely on health and mortality. As government officials throughout the UK during the first few months of the crisis offered daily hospitalization and death counts, minds inevitably concentrated on the medical risks of COVID-19. Yet the subject of this book is the social costs that will also come in the wake of the pandemic: problems of social disadvantage and suffering that will be less visible – perhaps less compelling in the public imagination – than the primary health impacts. How might law matter to such social problems? What role can law play in the alleviation of this social suffering?
When answering such questions, it is tempting to frame the discussion purely in terms of what government, Parliament or the courts might do to alleviate suffering. The image of law here is one where it has a formal status: enacted through Parliament, interpreted and developed in the courts, and enforced by administration. Equally, the understanding of law’s relationship to society is primarily a ‘top-down’ instrumental one: law as a tool of governance to bring about change in society. There is much to commend this way of thinking about law and society. It captures a great deal of what lawyers and social scientists study when exploring law’s potential to improve society and the actual impact of law on society. However, to understand the role of law in the response to social suffering fully, we must make two basic adjustments to this familiar way of thinking about law in society.
In March 2020, the government introduced a set of restrictions to ‘lockdown’ the United Kingdom in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the central purpose of which was to protect public health by both containing the rate of infection and protecting the NHS’ capacity to treat a potential influx of patients. These rules represented a profound interference with everyday life, but it was clear that this interference was experienced differently throughout the population. In this chapter, the authors draw upon an extensive dataset – constituted of national surveys, focus groups, and interviews – gathered during the first wave of the virus in the UK to provide an analysis of how this was experienced by women. The authors test the hypothesis that it may be that women are more likely to find certain rules that interfere with prior caring responsibilities more challenging than others, and argue that research examining compliance to individual rules might better highlight gender differences in compliance than overall compliance.