The present government and its Conservative-led predecessor have acquired a false reputation for being tough on immigration
Government rhetoric is certainly robust, with the prime minister comparing migrants to insects and the foreign secretary singling out Africans and saying migrants are marauders. The reality is that net migration is up and immigration enforcement is down; ministerial talk may be tough but media treatment is remarkably soft.
Labour has been unwilling to highlight government failings on immigration because doing so only highlights an issue that plays badly for the party in opinion polls. This silence allows the myth of Conservative competence to persist. As with the failure to confront absurd claims that the last Labour government caused the financial crash, a vicious circle needs to be broken in order to rebuild the party’s position of trust with the electorate.
If we look at the ONS statistics, we see that net migration reached a peak of 318,000 per year in 2014, up from 252,000 in 2010. How can the Conservatives possibly maintain they are tougher on immigration than Labour?
Not only that, but the latest statistics reveal that enforced removals from the UK and voluntary and assisted departures from the UK are lower now than in 2010. Those that have no status are less likely to be removed or to leave of their own accord than when the government took office.
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Against this backdrop, how can the government or Theresa May personally maintain a reputation for effective management of immigration control?
Removals and departures are down but immigration detention is up. This highlights another trend in government immigration policy: there are some very tough sounding policies that have been introduced but they have been wholly ineffective in achieving their supposed objectives. The wrong people have been targeted, the policies have failed and public concern about immigration has increased.
Tough rules on family and business migration were intended to reduce net migration. They have failed but along the way have broken many families, causing misery for those earning lower incomes, particularly those outside London, women, the young and ethnic minorities. The promising technology sector is now tied up in red tape intended to prevent recruitment of skilled workers from abroad. Genuine foreign students are dissuaded from studying in the UK because of tough rules and unfair treatment.
Government policy has been to create a hostile environment for migrants without status in order to encourage voluntary departure. ‘Go Home’ vans patrolled the streets one summer in ethnically diverse areas. Educators, employers, banks and now landlords have been co-opted as border guards and required to conduct ‘papers, please’ checks on suspected immigrants or face huge fines or even prison. Asylum support rates are now to be slashed for families.
The effect? Voluntary departures are now falling, not increasing.
Government immigration policy is a toxic mix of harsh rhetoric, harsh treatment of the wrong people and mismanagement of detention, removals and departures.
Given how damaging the immigration issue was for the last Labour government and the sense of betrayal by Labour in some communities, it is puzzling that present government has escaped serious criticism for its poor record. The press has moved on to blaming the migrants themselves rather than the government and the announcement of harsh sounding policies has proven an effective distraction from failures in basic day to day management of the Home Office under Theresa May.
None of this is to say that immigration is bad for Britain or that Labour should enter an unwinnable race to the bottom. The point is that the government should not be permitted to claim the false mantle of being the party that is tough on immigration when its record is quite the contrary.Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.