It’s a pity Nick Clegg is ditching his principled approach to immigration

Nick Clegg appears finally to be dropping his principled stance on immigration in favour of ill-considered rhetoric.

Nick Clegg appears finally to be dropping his principled stance on immigration in favour of ill-considered rhetoric

The summer before the general election is the time when political parties pull their policies out of their hats. With immigration so high up the political agenda, we can expect a lot of speeches on this issue.

Last week the Conservatives re-announced their proposal to restrict the length of time an EU migrant could claim benefits to three months. This week we will see speeches on EU migration from the both the shadow work and pension secretary Rachel Reeves and Nick Clegg.

Although Rachel Reeves’ speech will cover broader issues of welfare reform, it has been trailed as an immigration speech where she will suggest that Labour will stop EU migrants from claiming benefits unless they have first made National Insurance contributions in the UK.

This suggestion needs to be seen alongside Labour’s intention to move to a social security system that recognises workers’ prior contributions to tax and national insurance. Such a contributory social insurance system should reward those who have worked for long periods of time with more generous temporary benefits.

The Reeves speech will be followed by one given by Nick Clegg. In this he is likely to re-iterate Liberal Democrat policy on EU migration, but also argue that the EU should act to stop large-scale EU migration flows, if there is evidence that receiving countries are struggling to cope.

Clegg’s speech is significant, not because of its likely content, but because of the reporting attached to it. It also represents a break with previous policy as Clegg has been more wary of entering the race to the bottom against UKIP.

Of the mainstream political parties, the Lib Dems have been the most willing to articulate the benefits of migration. It also went into the last general election with a commitment to end child detention and for an earned regularisation programme for undocumented migrants who had been in the UK for more than ten years.

In 2013 Andrew Stunnell MP was asked to lead a policy review on immigration. Making Migration Work for Britain was published earlier this year and was passed at the party’s spring conference.

The policy review aimed to build greater trust in the immigration system and is the outcome of much research as well as consultation with party members and those from outside the party. It makes a number of commitments to tightening up on loopholes.

Like Labour, it proposes greater inspections of colleges and workplaces. It also wants exit checks and for most visa applications to be decided through face-to-face interviews with immigration officers.

These proposals are balanced by a genuine concern for human rights and for the UK’s prosperity. The party proposes that overseas students be removed from the net migration target – because most of them go home anyway.

Additionally, overseas students with science and technology degrees be allowed to remain in the UK for an additional three years.

The party proposes to improve the quality of asylum decision making and also give this group the right to work in the UK if their cases have not been determined within a six month period. Bravely, the Liberal Democrats have retained a commitment to earned regularisation for undocumented migrants, allowing adults who have been living continuously in the UK for 20 years the chance to apply for leave to remain provided they have no criminal record.

Clegg has now put himself on a collision course with party members by indicating he wants to talk tough on EU migration.

This is not a good place to be. In the long-term this immigration rhetoric ‘race to the bottom’ makes it more difficult for governments and communities to manage migration flows. ‘Talking tough’ on issues such as the abuse of benefits by EU migrants tends to reinforce the view that this is a major problem.

Yet evidence from a wide range of sources shows contrary – EU migrants come to the UK to work or study and pay in proportionally more to the exchequer in tax than do UK nationals.

Given that most EU migrants come to work, promises to tighten up on benefits will not reduce their numbers, nor public concerns. Whipping up hostility also makes it more difficult for policy makers to argue for policy that helps migrant integration and broader community relations, for example, publicly subsidised English classes.

Yet there are ways forward. In some parts of the UK, communities have successfully managed high levels of migration. There are many places where different sectors of society generally get on with each other.

Here local political leadership – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat – has been pro-active in dealing with any sources of tension between new migrants and longer settled residents, for example, poor quality private rental accommodation. They have also been willing to talk about immigration with local residents.

Areas where there is meaningful social contact between new migrants and longer settled residents generally enjoy better community relations. Ensuring that workplaces, schools and neighbourhoods are not segregated and there are spaces to meet and mix is important in dispelling concerns about migration.

Liberal Democrat policy addresses local integration and community relations, building on its experience in local government. It is a great pity that Nick Clegg ditched the principled and well-research approach of his party colleagues and opted for ill-considered rhetoric.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward and her book on integration and cohesion will be published by Policy Press next year

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