Which way now for immigration policy?

The coalition government has compromised on immigration. But while the end to child detention is a victory for campaigners, there are huge problems with the proposed cap.

Jill Rutter works for an organisation supporting asylum seekers and other immigrants and is an associate fellow of ippr; she writes in a personal capacity

Outside London, immigration emerged as a potent issue of public concern during the election campaign, with the Conservative and Labour Party’s talking tough, and the Lib Dems, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens advancing a different narrative – one that stressed the positive impacts of immigration.

With the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives divided in their overall narrative and in the details of asylum and immigration policy, it came as no surprise that the coalition agreement included a clause on this issue. Both parties have agreed to support an annual limit on work visa and student immigration to the UK and both parties have agreed to end the detention of children for immigration purposes.

Although not part of the formal coalition agreement, senior Lib Dems have also agreed to drop the proposal for an amnesty for irregular (illegal) migrants with more than ten years’ residency in the UK. Some senior Lib Dem parliamentarians have suggested that the amnesty proposal was a mistake and all mention of it has been mysteriously buried deep within the Lib Dem website. The migrants’ rights lobby, including Lib Dem party members, are now asking what these concessions really mean, and how the new government’s asylum and immigration policies will shape up.

In the next few weeks, Home Office ministers and civil servants will begin examining the immigration cap. It is not clear whether the coalition agreement will introduce an annual quota on work and student migration, or a cap on net inward immigration, where limits would be determined by the balance between immigration and emigration. Numbers matter, and previous Left Foot Forward postings have suggested that a net immigration cap of 40,000 people a year – intimated by the Tories – is likely to harm our universities, hospitals, financial services and other sectors of the economy that are dependent on skilled migrant labour. If the original Tory proposals were implemented, we could reach a situation mid-year where no more accountants, hospital consultants or PhD students could be brought into the UK until the following year. Already, university vice-chancellors, city banks, NHS and social care employers are lobbying to limit the damage of a cap. Foreign Office officials are also open in suggesting that a cap may harm bilateral relations with countries such as the US and India. Given the strength of this lobby, generous proposals, window dressed to sound tough, look the likely policy outcome.

The ending of child detention is welcome from a human rights perspective. But without workable alternatives to detention, this will be a hollow victory for the Lib Dems. Governments will still remove children and families from the UK and the UK Border Agency will, therefore, need to locate and monitor those whose removal is imminent. Without workable alternatives to detention such as police station reporting, we may see families scooped up in dawn raids and driven straight to the airport. (This already happens). Yes, child detention was stressful and horrible, but legal staff have daily surgeries in all the immigration removal centres and were able to challenge both detention and unlawful removal from the UK.

Outside the cap and the operation of removal policy, the new Home Secretary has much on her plate. Asylum backlogs are stacking up again and the quality of initial asylum decision making remains poor, with nearly a quarter of appeals overturning the UK Border Agency’s initial decision.

Irregular migrants are not going to go away – research from the Greater London Authority gives estimates of between 417,000 and 863,000 irregular migrants in the UK at the end of 2007, including 44,000 to 144,000 UK born children. Document checks by employers and UK Border Agency raids are having little impact on numbers and it costs an average of £12,000 to £23,000 to remove one person. While the Lib Dems may regret the inclusion of an ‘amnesty’ in their manifesto, this decision and the pronouncements of Boris Johnson may have opened up political space for a more honest debate about regularisation.

But in the long term, we are not going to see any progressive shift in asylum and immigration policy, including an amnesty, unless we change our overall national narrative about immigration. While immigration is seen as threatening by large sectors of the public, the Conservative Party is likely to want to talk ‘tough’. This tough talk has the capacity to reinforce public perceptions that immigration is a problem. Then faced with a public that is largely hostile to immigration, politicians have been unwilling to enact any policy that might be seen as being soft on immigration. During this election campaign, the Liberal Democrats (and SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens) tried to break this vicious circle with a more positive narrative about immigration. If this story is lost in the new coalition politics, this will be a far more significant casualty of the immigration trade off than the cap. If the Liberal Democrats want to position themselves as progressives, it is vital they maintain an account of migration that stresses the positives.

24 Responses to “Which way now for immigration policy?”

  1. Claire Spencer

    RT @leftfootfwd:The Liberal-Conservative's immigration cap is deeply flawed but the end to child detention is a victory http://bit.ly/ccNHI7

  2. amol rajan

    RT@leftfootfwd Lib-Con immigration cap deeply flawed but end to child detention is a victory http://bit.ly/ccNHI7 <<< yes, for @citizensuk

  3. Carol Roper

    The Liberal-Conservative's immigration cap is deeply flawed but the end to child detention is a victory http://bit.ly/ccNHI7

  4. Georgina Vincent

    RT @leftfootfwd: The Liberal-Conservative's immigration cap is deeply flawed but the end to child detention is a victory http://bit.ly/ccNHI7

  5. Immigration Tips

    Which way now for immigration policy? | Left Foot Forward: The coalition government has compromised on immigration… http://bit.ly/bD4pWv

  6. Alan Ritchie

    RT @leftfootfwd: The Liberal-Conservative's immigration cap is deeply flawed but the end to child detention is a victory http://bit.ly/ccNHI7

  7. Think Debate

    RT @leftfootfwd: The Liberal-Conservative's immigration cap is deeply flawed but the end to child detention is a victory http://bit.ly/ccNHI7

  8. amol rajan

    RT @leftfootfwd Lib-Con immigration cap deeply flawed but end to child detention is a victory http://bit.ly/ccNHI7 <<< yes, for @citizensuk

  9. Jane Ayres

    RT @leftfootfwd: The Liberal-Conservative's immigration cap is deeply flawed but the end to child detention is a victory http://bit.ly/ccNHI7

  10. law

    "Which way now for immigration policy? | Left Foot Forward" http://bit.ly/9TnUCO #immigration

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  12. norbert

    where are we all going to live?

    you can’t have green fields, affordable housing and positive net immigration

    you can have two of the above but not all three

    so which two do we want?

  13. Martin Burns

    RT @leftfootfwd: The Liberal-Conservative's immigration cap is deeply flawed but the end to child detention is a victory http://bit.ly/ccNHI7

  14. Rodney

    UK population would drop if immigration were to be pulled back to 77 or 40 thousand.

  15. SadButMadLad

    Don’t mix up non EU migrants with EU migrants. EU migrants don’t count as they have free right of movement and work.

    Also, not all non EU migrants are true migrants. The banks for instance currently outsource a lot of their work to India (and not we’re not talking call centre staff). No problem in that, except that a lot of the Indian staff work here in the UK and aren’t counted in the figures.

  16. norbert

    @sadbutmadlad

    i think you have to define ‘migrant’ and ‘true migrant’ if anyone is going to have a hope of understanding what the hell you are talking about.

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  18. NCADC

    Which way now for #immigration policy? Jill Rutter writes at LeftFootForward http://bit.ly/b6h4f3

  19. Michael Burke

    This is a very constructive argument, one that should be put by Labour.

    The so-called cap on immigratin is nothing of the kind membership of the EU means ere is no possibility of regulaing the number of immigrants. Capping non-EU immigrants, as the ConDems pretend they will, is simply a sop to those who want to control, or reduce the number of immigrants with Black or Brown faces.

    This is pernicious as it is unworkable. No government can accurately foreast the level of employment in the ecoomy 3 months ahead, let alone a year- and by sector.

    Instead, the mobility of labour is tid to the maobility of capital. And both increase our productive forces here whether doestically generated or imported. The whole of the outperformance of the US economy verus the European economy since WWII can be accounted for by demographic trends, most especially the far higher levels of net migration to the US. This is becasue it is people who create wealth, especially those youthful, hardworking and adaptable people that make up the bulk of all immigrant populations.

    That new wealth-creating capacity should be lveraged by policymakers so that the benefits are shared by all- increasing spending on schools, health care and above all new social housing in areas where immigrants come to live, for the befit of the existng population and the newly arrived.

    Norbert, you are therefore entirely wrong. Immigration creates wealth and policy can be used to increase it. And if its your green and pleasant land you’re worried about, you might be surpised to learn that Jersey and Guernsey have population densities more than 3 times greater than the UK

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_and_dependencies_by_population_density

    without much despoilation of the countryside.

  20. norbert

    Micheal

    I live in southern england (high density), not the UK (medium density). House prices have risen beyond the reach of anybody without rich parents on an average salary. An utter failing of the Labour government. And yes, some of this upward pressure on prices is due to net migration.

    Jersey and Guernsey are not green and pleasant. They are highly developed with intensive agriculture on what is left.

  21. Noxi

    RT @ncadc: Which way now for #immigration policy? Jill Rutter writes at LeftFootForward http://bit.ly/b6h4f3

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  23. Lauren

    Does anyone else find some level of flaws in the ConDems logic — that non-EU immigrants are a drain on the UK’s public services? A decent percentage of the non-EU immigrants must be on Tier 1 or Tier 2 visas and therefore, employed or selected to enter the UK based on their qualifications (Master’s minimum), previous salary and age (early 30s at the oldest to claim points). Surely these employed or employable people are contributing to the UK tax system and National Insurance and not placing an undue burden on the system…?

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