Four of the political parties may have a hand in shaping an entirely new immigration system on Friday. So what do they promise? More importantly, how realistic are these pledges? Immigration Solicitor Vanessa Ganguin examines how credible these political promises are.
With all kinds of accusations flying around, bold promises, u-turns, and none of the parties particularly trusted on this question in opinion polls, immigration as usual is a thorny election issue. This year it’s especially contentious with the countdown to Brexit and the fate of 3.5 million European citizens living in the UK and 1.2 million British ex-pats in EU countries hanging in the balance.
- Yet again, the Conservative manifesto promises to cut net migration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousand – a target Theresa never met in six years as Home Secretary, or 11 months as Prime Minister.
- Ending freedom of movement from the EU is a top Tory pledge. Parliament’s Migration Advisory Committee would make recommendations for a new visa system to “tackle skills shortages with the needs of industry in mind.”
- Employers will have to pay double the present immigration skills levy to hire skilled workers so sponsoring someone for five years will cost £10,000 up front.
- Students count towards migration figures Tories pledge to reduce, much to the worry of UK universities as the manifesto vows to “toughen up requirements for student visas”.
- The manifesto warns graduates: “we will expect students to leave the country at the end of their course, unless they meet new, higher requirements that allow them to work in Britain after their studies are concluded.”
- Increased earnings threshold for people wanting a family member to live with them in the UK. The current level is already controversial with many couples having to choose between living together or living in the UK and judges recently ruling that children’s interests should be taken into account.
- The Tories will “work to reduce” asylum claims made in the UK, prioritising those who seek asylum from overseas.
- Brexit negotiations will hopefully “secure entitlements of EU nationals in Britain and British nationals in the EU,” and maintain the Common Travel Area for tourists and business trips to and from Europe. The manifesto rather optimistically promises to “maintain as frictionless a border as possible for people, goods and services between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.”
Verdict: very ambitious – there are worrying contradictions in the Brexit and immigration positions in the Conservative manifesto lending the impression of a program scribbled out on the backs of several different cigarette packets. To reduce net migration from its current level of 273,000 to under 100,000 as promised while not wreaking economic havoc by making life impossible for British businesses relying on EU and other foreign talent post-Brexit seems impossible. Which would explain much backtracking by Tory ministers since the manifesto was published about when exactly this figure would be achievable and how much all this would cost the UK economy. Expecting refugees to make asylum claims in country rather than escape a perilous situation and make a claim here is also rather half-baked. Theresa May has already implemented many measures to make access to justice – and life in general – as hard as possible for refugees and human rights cases.
- Brexit means an end to freedom of movement for Labour though EU citizens’ rights are a priority.
- Manifesto favours “fair rules and reasonable management of migration” rather than a specific commitment to reduction of numbers.
- Students will not be counted in the net migration figures.
- Work with businesses, unions and devolved government to identify labour shortages and respond with a “tailored mix” of work permits, visas and employer sponsorship.
- Restore last Labour’s government Migrant Impact Fund to help areas affected by large numbers of immigrants, to be funded by visa payments and a residence visa charge for high net worth individuals.
- The minimum income threshold that has kept couples apart if the British partner earns under £18,600 will be dropped and replaced by a commitment not to rely on benefits.
- Bosses who try to undercut wages using migrant workers will face a crackdown.
- 500 more border guards will be recruited to reverse the cuts of recent years.
- End indefinite detention for tens of thousands of people each year held on immigration grounds.
Verdict: A leaked internal document which appeared in the Daily Telegraph was seized on for showing Labour was discussing some sort of visa system for unskilled workers has been dismissed by the Labour Party. Hardly news – all the main parties will be looking at solutions to skills shortages at all levels from seasonal fruit pickers to nurses to oncologists to financial technology, so no surprise memos are flying around on all these topics. The Labour program promises changes to the immigration system, with skills shortages prioritised over discriminating “between people of different races or creeds.” Reuniting families will be a priority and Labour promise to “not scapegoat migrants” – all of which sounds eminently sensible.
The Liberal Democrats
- The rights of EU citizens in the UK are to be respected as soon as possible.
- Tim Farron called for freedom of movement between the UK and EU to stay as an integral part of staying the single market.
- The Lib Dems also do not want to place unrealistic artificial limits on immigration numbers, and will remove students from counting towards overall immigration figures.
- Bring back Labour’s Migrant Impact Fund.
- The Lib Dems are very specific on meeting obligations to refugees in Europe including the Dubs scheme named after kinder transport holocaust survivor Lord Dubs. This contrasts with the Conservatives, Theresa May reneging on the scheme to offer sanctuary to the 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children.
- Under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, the Lib Dems want the UK to provide sanctuary for 50,000 refugees over five years.
- An end to detaining people indefinitely on immigration grounds.
Verdict: Good to see refugees and their treatment still a priority for the Liberal Democrats. Let’s hope that if they are suddenly needed to form a majority coalition on Friday, they might inject a bit of reason into immigration policy. Though if they are helping Theresa May form a majority, she is very unlikely to compromise on restricting migration – perhaps her main focus now for a Hard Brexit that this time last year she was complaining would be reckless for the economy and national security.
Scottish National Party
- Rights of EU citizens here to be confirmed immediately.
- Devolved immigration powers “so that Scotland can have an immigration policy that works for our economy and society,” inviting to EU citizens and “against the demonisation of migrants.”
- The SNP want a less restrictive immigration system than Westminster, reintroducing the post study work visa so graduates can stay and contribute to the economy.
- Oppose the Skills Immigration Charge for sponsoring a skilled worker as the SNP argue it is damaging for the economy.
- Nicola Sturgeon has also campaigned for the Dubs refugee children not to be abandoned.
- The SNP call for alternatives to detention for people with immigration issues and a maximum limit of 28 days.
Verdict: This all seems very sensible. Scotland’s biggest economic problem is its declining population so the country really needs the economic boost of appearing attractive for students, graduates and skilled workers. We are already beginning to look less appealing for all those groups. Some have scoffed at a fully devolved immigration policy to protect the Scottish economy and public services as there is no border with Scotland, but our points-based system already allows different shortage occupations for Scotland.
What is abundantly clear is that three of the above parties have a lot in common, tackling immigration sensibly, with compassion and realism, but the Conservative Party are hell bent on an ever more impractical and cruel approach.
For as long as I’ve practised in immigration the Conservative Party has told the electorate that migrants are a bad thing, pledged to reduce them, failed to and blamed free movement from the EU. So when they finally offered the country a referendum on leaving the EU, the result was unsurprising. And now we are leaving the EU it is unsurprising that their manifesto is hell bent on doing so in the name of unachievable and economically perilous levels of immigration.