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.

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