The Conservative record on immigration

February 12, 2015

A report on the Conservative record on immigration was issued by Migration Watch UK today.

The report finds that the Conservatives struggled to bring order into a situation in which the numbers had run out of control and the system was close to chaos. Despite the limitations of a coalition and continuous pressure from the pro-immigration lobby, they succeeded in slowing the momentum of non-EU migration but were taken by surprise when EU migration doubled in two years.

The report considers that the net migration target made sense at the time that it was formulated since EU immigration had been counterbalanced by British emigration for all but two of the previous 18 years. However, a future target should be confined to non-EU net migration which the government can directly control. The scale of EU migration remains a serious problem. As is well known, current EU obligations make it very difficult to mitigate. The renegotiation of those obligations will be essential after the forthcoming election.

In general, the execution of policy was well focused and on the right lines. The changes to work migration improved its quality but there was little effect on numbers; despite the chorus of disapproval from business and the CBI, the cap on work permits was never reached.

Family migration rules were usefully tightened but, so far, without much impact on numbers.

Substantial progress was made on reducing the inflow of bogus students but there is, not surprisingly, no sign that bogus applicants admitted under the previous government have returned home. A crucial step for the future, therefore, has been the re-introduction of interviews for applicants for student visas.

The impact of the Immigration Act 2014 has yet to be felt but it should make it more difficult for foreign nationals to stay on illegally.

An important lesson is the need to focus on departures as well as arrivals. The non-EU inflow rose sharply from 120,000 in 1997 to a peak of 330,000 in 2004 and it is still at 245,000. Despite this massive increase in arrivals, departures have been stuck at 100,000 a year. Meanwhile, enforced removal of overstayers has been relatively trivial at about 5,000 a year under both governments.

The report finds that removal is critical to the credibility of the entire system. This is a complex issue that will not solved by money alone but nor will it be effectively tackled without a major increase in resources.

Turning to the wider context, the report points to a number of factors which make it difficult for any government to bring immigration under control. In this period, an important element was the fact that their Lib Dem coalition partners had made no commitment to reduce numbers and were reluctant to take effective action to do so. Other factors include pro-immigration attitudes within parts of the Treasury and Civil Service and the influence of economic liberals combined with pressure from business concerned about the free movement of labour without always having a proper appreciation of social impacts; to these might be added the influence of the large and vocal body of immigration lawyers. The heavily pro-immigration output of the BBC, biased by the omission of the case against mass immigration, was a further significant factor.

The paper points out that continued failure to control immigration, despite the strong public concern about the issue, might eventually undermine the credibility of successive governments and, indeed, of the political system as a whole.

Commenting, Lord Green of Deddington said, “The battle for public opinion has been decisively won in the face of a powerful immigration lobby. This is the first time that a government has made a serious effort to get numbers down. They have undeniably made valuable progress but continued strong efforts, led from the top, are essential. These efforts must succeed if the public are not to lose faith in our political system”

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