UK citizens will soon go to the polls. An issue central to many voters, and consequently to those seeking office, is immigration.
Public concern surrounding immigration has been on the rise for some time and politicians have attempted to use this to their advantage. Unfortunately, this has seen the issue bandied about and politicised to the point of toxicity. Moreover, though many of the proposed policies run parallel to populist fears, often those fears do not reflect the UK’s economic, cultural and social realities.
Since coming to power, the Conservative immigration platform has been guided by its pledge to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands by the next parliament. To do this, the government has introduced a series of changes to the immigration system, severely limiting opportunities for nationals from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland to work, study, or live in the UK.
The Conservatives have been unable to make good on this promise, with annual net migration at nearly 250,000 and EEA migration on the rise too. Although they have successfully reduced migration from outside the EU, they are powerless to effect meaningful change to the free movement of nationals from within. David Cameron has pledged to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU and have an in-out referendum on membership by 2017.
Should the Conservative party be re-elected, Cameron has pledged to do the following:
- revoke the sponsor licences of businesses and education institutions that fail to prevent sponsored migrants from overstaying;
- extend the policy of ‘deport first, appeal later’ to all ‘right to family life’-related immigration appeals;
- introduce more powers to combat the trafficking of migrants;
- increase powers to handle abuse of free movement;
- extend the length of re-entry bans for EU nationals who abuse free movement;
- make it harder for EU nationals to bring non-EU spouses to the UK;
- prevent EU nationals from accessing benefits such as Jobseeker’s Allowance;
- require EU jobseekers to leave the UK if they are unable to find work within six months;
- restrict free movement rights of new EU member states until their economies more closely match those of existing states;
- abolish child benefits for children living abroad; and
- introduce a four-year residency requirement to access benefits and social housing.
Cameron’s plans to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s membership of the EU have been criticised at home and abroad. Many experts have stressed that arbitrary caps on EU migration would be illegal under present law and likely require a full treaty negotiation among EU members.
While most member states want the UK to remain in the union, there appears to be a clear line they will not cross with regard to scuttling or reforming free movement. As such, two of the more radical ideas – an ‘emergency brake’ and/or a temporary cap on EU migration – have been dismissed.
It should also be pointed out that, were the UK to leave the EU, it would almost certainly have detrimental effects on the estimated 1.4 to 2.2 million Brits presently taking advantage of free movement in EU member states.
Labour has been roundly panned for its immigration policies of the 1990s and 2000s. In particular, the decision immediately to open the UK to citizens from the A8 countries in 2004 has been the subject of much criticism and even forced a mea culpa from Ed Miliband.
As part of its election campaign, Labour proposes:
- implementing more robust border controls with detailed entry and exit information;
- encouraging top talent to come to the UK, while controlling the levels of low-skilled migrants;
- introducing a criminal offence for exploiting migrant workers to undercut domestic wages;
- creating measures to prevent recruitment agencies from hiring exclusively from overseas sources;
- requiring large firms hiring migrants to offer a domestic apprenticeship; and
- demanding better English language skills for public-facing public sector workers.
Although Miliband has made it clear the UK should remain in the EU, he has also stated that he would not be against requesting changes to EU treaties to amend free movement among member states. Such changes could include longer transitional periods for new member states before their citizens could exercise free movement to the UK; an end to certain child benefits for children living overseas; and a longer waiting period before new migrants can access the UK’s social service benefits.
The Lib Dems have had a challenging four years as part of the coalition. While the Conservatives have directed most policy decisions, the Lib Dems have often been blamed for failures and unrecognised for achievements. Last August party leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg outlined a number of changes his party would like to see, including:
- introducing more thorough entry and exit checks;
- reforming EU free movement to reflect the wealth disparity across member states, such that stricter transition measures would apply regarding when new member state citizens could access the UK labour market;
- removing the exemption for self-employed EU migrants from new member states to come to the UK before the expiration of transitional measures;
- allowing transitional measures to extend beyond seven years;
- creating a brake for migration if arriving numbers are ‘too big’ for the UK to absorb;
- ceasing subsidy of translation services for those applying for passports and driving licences;
- preventing a cap on student numbers (though none exists); and
- introducing a wider range of investment opportunities for investor migrants in a broader range of productive sectors, with a greater emphasis placed on green industry.
Given the party’s low poll ratings, it would seem that the best-case general election outcome would be the opportunity to form a new coalition government with the victor. However, in such a hypothetical scenario, the Lib Dems’ ability to enact policies aligned with their values would vary dramatically depending on the party affiliation of their coalition partner.
In 2014 Ukip won two byelections and nearly beat Labour in Heywood and Middleton. The party also scored heavily in the European parliament and UK council elections last May.
According to Ukip, immigration is ‘crippling local services in the UK’ and must be controlled to relieve pressure on healthcare, education, housing and welfare systems. Though it claims to recognise ‘the benefits of limited, controlled immigration’, Ukip’s platform consists primarily of unworkable, anti-immigration, and Eurosceptic rhetoric, including:
- leaving the EU;
- applying an Australian-style points-based system to EU citizens for ‘time-limited’ work permits, where only those who already have a job, health insurance, accommodation and English language skills would be permitted to enter or remain in the UK;
- restricting migrant benefits to those who have lived and supported themselves in the UK for five years;
- restricting permanent residence to those w ho have lived in the UK for 10 years;
- reinstating the primary purpose rule for foreign spouses and children (the primary purpose rule, abolished in 1997, was described by former home secretary Jack Straw as ‘arbitrary, unfair and ineffective and has penalised genuine cases, divided families and unnecessarily increased the administrative burden on the immigration system’);
- capping net employment migration at 50,000 a year;
- creating one line at the border for British passport holders and one line for the rest of the world;
- increasing frontline staff and search teams at UK border entry points by an extra 2,500; and
- raising the English language skills requirements that must be met before permanent residence can be granted.
These proposals would amount to a complete overhaul of the UK’s immigration system, and Ukip’s opponents argue, be seriously detrimental to the UK.
While general concerns over immigration have risen since the early 2000s, specific concerns, such as the fear that there are ‘too many immigrants’, do not neatly correlate with the actual increase in migrant numbers.
An Ipsos MORI survey found Britons are ‘massively wrong’ on a significant number of aspects of immigration. For example:
- the public’s average estimate of the UK’s foreign-born population was 31%, when it is actually 13%;
- asylum-seekers are believed to be the largest group, when they are in fact the smallest;
- students are the group least likely to be thought of when people imagine a migrant, though they are the largest group; and
- there is a consistent and significant gap between the proportion of Britons concerned about how immigration is affecting the UK nationally (about 70%-80%) versus the proportion concerned about the impact locally (about 10%-25%).
This suggests that, while most people have no issue with the immigrants who live near them, there is a perception that severe problems exist in most of the rest of the country.
Remarkably, the most common response among those surveyed when provided with the correct figures was not to believe them.
Last October, when speaking at a car plant in London, Cameron stated: ‘I’m very clear about who the boss is, about who I answer to, and it’s the British people. They want this issue fixed, they are not being unreasonable about it, and I will fix it.’
However, as the Ipsos MORI poll illustrates, the stark reality remains that ‘the boss’ is often deeply misinformed as to key facts about immigration.
Stop playing games
Should navigation of the political landscape continue to be guided by a misunderstanding of the facts, the direct route to intelligent and effective policy may be lost for a generation or more.
It is therefore vital that politicians, a group whose vision of the future is often limited to the sharp edges of the next election, put forward policies that reflect reality. They must stop chasing short-term electoral gains and focus on long-term social goods. Indeed, they must stop playing the immigration game.
Laura Devine, Laura Devine Solicitors