Wednesday, July 31, 2013

UK politicians draw battle lines over immigration

The British government’s latest attempt to crack down on immigration has been denounced as “stupid and offensive” by one of its own ministers, as the issue again rises to the top of the political agenda.

Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat business secretary, fears that the coalition government’s attempt to reassure public opinion on immigration is damaging community relations as well as the UK’s economy and universities.

Mr Cable’s frustration boiled over after the launch of a mobile poster campaign across six London boroughs telling illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest”.

“It is designed, apparently, to create a sense of fear in the British population that we have a vast problem of illegal immigration,” he told the BBC. “We have a problem – but not a vast one – and it’s got to be dealt with in a measured way.”

The UK has a longstanding tradition of tolerance towards immigrants and its economy has benefited from a vibrant and open labour market: the last census found that just 45 per cent of Londoners class themselves as “white British”.

But immigration is regularly listed as among the most important issues by voters: in May that concern rose to a three-year high with 57 per cent of respondents ranking it in their top three main worries.

The influx of hundreds of thousands of Polish and Lithuanian workers to Britain after their countries joined the EU in 2004 – far in excess of the numbers expected – has created a sense that the UK is no longer in control of its borders.

Public anxiety over immigration was stoked this week when MPs on the Commons public administration committee said the official migration figures were “little better than a best guess” based on random interviews with travellers. Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, said on Tuesday that formal exit checks should be introduced at ports and airports.

That sense has been exploited by the UK Independence party, which has combined an anti-European stance with warnings of a fresh surge of migrants from Bulgaria and Romania when work restrictions on those countries are lifted next year.

For years, mainstream politicians have shied away from confronting the issue of immigration but today there is an acceptance that the rise of Ukip is a manifestation of a failure to address something of genuine concern to ordinary voters.

Conservative party has responded by vowing to cut net migration to “tens of thousands” by the 2015 election.

That objective was seen by some as hopelessly optimistic, but figures released in May showed net migration was down by 80,000 – a fall of a third – to 153,000.

Mark Harper, immigration minister, claims this drop is down to the government “cutting out abuse” of the system, for instance by closing down “bogus colleges” – and therefore spurious student visas – or reforming the rules on work visas.

The Labour opposition argues that the main reason for the fall is the fact that more people are leaving the UK than before the last election, and fewer British people are returning home – a function of the “flatlining economy”.

While both claims have some truth to them, the immigration debate is not just about numbers: it also concerns whether a country with a previously liberal approach to the issue is turning its back on the world.

Mr Cable, whose first wife was Indian, fears the tone of the debate is deterring business people from applying for visas in the UK, even if the government insists its quotas for skilled workers are not being filled.

UK universities have suffered significant declines in the numbers of students from countries such as India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia; a study found a 32 per cent drop in first-year students from India.

For Mr Cameron, who constantly proclaims Britain is engaged in a “global race” with other countries, this is somewhat embarrassing and a source of tension with trading partners.

He insisted on a visit to India this year that there was “no limit” on the number of Indian students who could come to Britain, provided they spoke English and had the offer of a place. Downing Street is also worried that visa red tape is deterring Chinese business leaders and tourists from coming to the UK.

Now Mr Cable has urged the government to scrap its £3,000 bond pilot for visitors from six countries – including India and Nigeria – because it sends out the “wrong message” about Britain.   Asking visitors for a deposit before they enter the UK – to ensure they leave again – does not exactly sound welcoming.

But for the UK government, like many other western administrations, striking a balancing act between openness, global economic success and the concerns of austerity-weary domestic voters is proving a difficult one.


Immigrants have a lot to offer Britain, but those here illegally have no right to remain

Boris Johnson on "those" billboards

I took a while to focus on what she was saying, but I gathered that she was offended by the Home Office mobile posters that have been going around some boroughs, urging illegal immigrants to go home.

It was a scandal, she said; it was going to be damaging for race relations; and what, she wanted to know, was I doing about it? She was a barrister, she added, as if I wasn’t already apprehensive enough. As every politician knows, you cannot possibly hope to win in a position like this — the whole crowd listening as some well-spoken and well-educated woman decides to give you what for – and especially if she is armed with a lethal-looking glass of sangria.

“Er, I haven’t actually seen the posters,” I ventured, which was true — though I had been made vaguely aware of the controversy. That wasn’t good enough, she snapped. I should be speaking out, she said, witheringly, and so on and so forth. After about 10 rounds of pummelling, I was able to escape by promising to have a look at the offending propaganda, and to make up my own mind.

Well, I have — or at least, I have studied them online. The tone is certainly blunt. The message is uncompromising. “Go home or face arrest,” says the Home Office to illegal immigrants, in words that have even offended the tender sensibilities of Nigel Farage, the leader of Ukip.

I suppose it could have been more gently drafted. How about: “Illegal immigrant? Worried about being arrested? Need help getting home? We can help! Just text HOME to 78070 and we will act as your personal travel agent.” That might have at least sounded a bit friendlier — but I wonder whether it would have appeased my angry friend with the sangria. As far as I could tell, she objected to the whole concept of urging illegal immigrants to do the right thing.

She seemed to think it wrong and downright racist even to point out that they were breaking the law. On that point I am afraid I have to disagree. Illegal immigrants have every opportunity to make their case to remain in Britain, and we have courts full of eloquent lefty lawyers — like, I very much suspect, my sangria-charged friend — taking prodigious sums of taxpayers’ money to vindicate the human rights of their clients.

Such is the ingenuity of these lawyers that all government strategies to deal with these illegals have so far failed. Indeed, we already have a de facto amnesty for all illegal immigrants who have been able to stay here for a long time. Ask the Home Office how many illegal immigrants have been deported, after being here for more than 10 years. The number is tiny. For most hard-working and otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants there is virtually no chance that they will be deported — and yet they cannot pay tax, cannot take part in the legal economy, and certainly cannot run for their country.

It is certainly not racist to point out this absurdity, since illegals come from all ethnic groups. It is not anti-immigrant to point this out, since illegals make a nonsense of the efforts of other immigrants to do the right thing and secure leave to remain. One way or another illegals need to regularise their position, and preferably to pay taxes like everyone else.

This poster campaign is unlikely, in itself, to solve the problem that expanded so massively under the last Labour government. But you surely can’t blame the Coalition for trying to enforce the law.


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