On March 22, Nick Clegg delivered his first major speech on immigration since assuming the role of deputy prime minister. In addition to admonishing past Labour policies and highlighting more recent coalition reforms, Clegg outlined the ambitions of his own party, the Liberal Democrats, in building what he referred to as ‘tolerant Britain, zero-tolerant of abuse’.
Among his party’s plans, which included a retreat from an ‘earned route to citizenship’ for certain undocumented immigrants, the deputy prime minister revealed a proposal to run a pilot programme requiring security bonds from the citizens of (unspecified) ‘high-risk’ nations.
Under this proposal, certain nationals applying to come to the UK would be obliged to pay a deposit that would be repaid once they left. The specifics of the plan, which the Home Office has been instructed to begin by year-end, are yet to be disclosed. It is speculated, however, that the bonds would be £1,000 or higher and could apply to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, as well as some Middle East and African nations.
While the idea of an immigrant security bond is not new to the UK – the previous Labour government proposed it on more than one occasion, and home secretary Theresa May recently suggested a similar plan – implementation seems highly unlikely. Certainly, to impose a security bond on the citizens of any nation, ‘high-risk’ or otherwise, is to imply that they are likely to break something in the shop – that they must insure the UK against taking a gamble on their ‘precarious’ entry. As such, targeted nationals would be effectively branded guilty until they were able to prove their innocence upon departure. Psychologically, this is damaging; socially, this is counterproductive; diplomatically, this is foolish.
Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, Clegg’s announcement comes at a time when the UK’s major political parties are engaged in a new round of one-upmanship, each attempting to outdo the other by professing increasingly tough stances on immigration. At least in part, this rhetorical rise in temperature appears to have been sparked by the recent byelection in Eastleigh, where the UK Independence Party (UKIP) took second place to the Lib Dems, but landed well ahead of the Conservatives. At the same time, according to a recent poll, support for UKIP presently stands at about 17% nationally, lending the perception of weight (at least among politicians) to that party’s platform.
However, as proposed immigration policies are being drawn further to the right, it should be pointed out that most bear little relation to lasting, responsible reform. Rather, as is so often the case, the furthest horizon many politicians are able see is that of their next election. With the upset in Eastleigh apparently exerting an undue gravitational pull upon the immigration debate for the moment, it is sadly predictable that few among our elected officials are willing to offer realistic plans for the long-term.
Security bond risks
One immediate concern is that a plan to impose immigrant security bonds would unfairly affect legitimate visitors seeking to enter the UK for a permissible period of time. Relatives, students and those without sufficient financial means could be prevented, or at the very least discouraged, from coming in the first instance. Indeed, it is entirely conceivable that relatives wishing to travel to the UK for family events such as graduations, weddings or funerals could be priced out, due to the thousands of pounds needed to secure multiple bonds.
Additionally, countries affected by these measures, as well as those nations who simply view them as draconian and discriminatory, could impose the very same requirements on British travellers. Even domestically, plans for immigrant security bonds have been criticised. As far back as 2000, when Labour scrapped a similar proposal, Simon Hughes, then the Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, noted that: ‘The idea of bonds as a surety for visitors from some countries was clearly discriminatory… When will the government learn that what we need are sensible policies, not tough-sounding but half-baked ideas?’
More recently, Keith Vaz, chairman of the home affairs select committee, described Clegg’s proposal as ‘unworkable, impractical and also discriminatory’. With the UK’s ever-growing anti-business, anti-student and anti-family reputation, such a measure would simply cause additional harm.
Finally, it is unlikely that imposing this policy would deter those individuals determined to enter the UK and remain beyond their granted leave. Rather, this cost may be seen by those seeking to circumvent the Immigration Rules simply as an inconvenient increase in price of entry. Therefore, instead of limiting the number of migrants who overstay their leave, the bonds may simply serve to discourage or prevent legitimate visitors from entering.
Since coming to power, the Conservative-led coalition has made an effort to craft policy and direct public attention toward their goal of reaching an arbitrary net migration figure. But to focus only, or even primarily, on this quixotic mission misses the larger, more vital issue of what the public should expect from an immigration system. As migration, particularly within the EU, is inevitable, our political parties should be concentrating on a comprehensive plan focused more on integration than on exclusion.
Moreover, it is vital that such a scheme focuses not only on programmes for immigrants, but for the public as well. It goes without saying that it is equally important for migrants to both enrich the communities that they live in, as well as be recognised as doing so by the members of those communities.
Given the previously unsuccessful attempts to introduce, and unpopularity of, immigrant security bonds, it seems highly unlikely that the latest round offered by the Lib Dems will amount to much more than a few days’ worth of headlines. However, the broader concern should be that the immigration debate is quickly spiraling downward in a race to the bottom. In an effort to meet perceived popular demand, it seems many politicians are being railroaded, unwittingly or not, into increasingly sensational, but less substantive or sustainable policies. Our leaders must avoid pandering to unfounded fears and look past their own political ambitions to the needs of the UK, both as a sovereign state, as well as a member of an increasingly globalised economy, culture, and community.