In a report published this weekend commissioned by former Conservative Deputy Chairman, Lord Ashcroft, a poll of more than 20,000 people revealed that 60% believe that immigration has overall brought more disadvantages than advantages to Britain. This is at odds with numerous academic studies showing that the net fiscal impact of immigration is positive but the report also coincides with new data from the Office of National Statistics showing that net migration rose to 176,000 in the year to December 2012 (up from 153,000 in September 2012), the first rise in 5 consecutive quarters.   

In short, immigration is and will remain a serious concern for the British public and the Government’s strategy to reduce net migration to tens of thousands simply does not appear to be working.  Furthermore, as Lord Ashcroft commented in this weekend’s Sunday Times, whatever their view on immigration, few people think that any political party has a real grasp on it.  Whether this perception exists because or in spite of some recent dramatic measures to ‘get tough’ on illegal immigrants is difficult to say, but looking back over an eventful summer, we consider what might be on the horizon for UK immigration policy:   

  • The infamous ‘go home or face arrest’ vans sent out in 6 London boroughs and aimed at persuading illegal immigrants to leave the UK voluntarily generated vast publicity, almost all of it hostile. The scheme only lasted for a week but leaflets carrying the same message are still in circulation. If considered ‘successful’ (although it’s unclear how this will be measured), the scheme will apparently be rolled out on annual basis.  Vince Cable described the scheme as “stupid and offensive”; Brent Council leader Muhammed Butt called it “an act of desperation” and Lord Ouseley (a crossbench peer and former chief executive of the Commission for Racial Equality) said it contributed to an “element of racism and xenophobia”.  The Advertising Standards Authority has launched an inquiry and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is also investigating.  Nonetheless, the Ashcroft poll shows that of those members of the public responding, just shy of 80% supported the initiative.  Despite concerns about stirring up racial tension, this level of public approval may have a bearing on whether similar vans become a regular sight on our streets. However, that presumes that ‘success’ is measured by how many people think any given step shows the Government to be hard enough on unlawful immigration, and not on whether it actually works. 
  • The vans were followed closely by the announcement of Home Office plans to press ahead with a £3,000 visitor bond for nationals of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Ghana, these countries having been identified as having high rates of ‘over-stayers’.  The bond would be paid in advance to obtain a visitor visa and forfeited if the individual did not leave the UK on or before its expiry.  The initiative has been condemned for being inherently discriminatory, damaging to international investment and unworkable in any event given that the UK still has no adequate system of exit controls to confirm whether or not visitors are actually leaving the country within the terms of their visa.  Of even greater concern is the proposal to roll out a similar scheme for students and sponsored migrant workers, should the visitor bond scheme prove successful.  Details of the scheme have now been removed from the Home Office website but it is not clear whether this is because it is re-thinking its proposals or withdrawing them altogether.  
  • Next up, following a series of spot checks by UK immigration enforcement officers at railway stations, the EHRC is reported to be investigating the Home Office itself for allegations of unlawful discrimination. Onlookers are reported to have described how UK immigration enforcement officers appeared to target individuals based on their ethnicity. Immigration Minister Mark Harper has denied that the checks carried out used racial profiling and avers that individuals were stopped ‘based on intelligence and reasonable suspicion’.  Again, this practice has met with widespread criticism and whilst spot checks are unlikely to stop altogether it is to be expected that the EHRC inquiry will force the Home Office to tread carefully in this respect.    

The Ashcroft poll also revealed that the public is generally sensitive to the point at which immigration ‘control’ becomes racist.  It describes how a passing reference by Sir Andrew Green (Head of Migration Watch UK) to a study suggesting that white British people could be a minority in 50 years, was ‘off-putting to many participants … it seemed to them to lend a racial element to the argument with which they did not want to be associated’.   No doubt there will also be many others whose ‘tipping point’ is somewhat more overt.  

The most interesting statistics in the Ashcroft poll were those that referred to a number of measures implemented to reduce net migration, for example, an annual limit on migration from outside the EU; a requirement for those applying to settle in the UK to speak better English and a pass a Life in the UK Test and the reform of the student visa system including a crackdown on bogus colleges.  The vast majority of those asked thought that such measures were a good idea but only a minority thought, correctly, that they were already in place. Which creates a dilemma for the Home Office – does it trumpet these steps but then have to concede that they are wholly or largely ineffective, or keep them quiet and then be accused of not doing enough about this high profile issue?  

Lord Ashcroft has summed up the current view on immigration as follows: ‘One thing that unites people with different views about immigration is their conviction that politicians have handled it badly: whether because they are incompetent, fail to listen, are afraid to be accused of racism or are too weak to set out the advantages of immigration in the face of public opposition’. 

It seems, then, the Government has a Titanic task ahead.  Current policy risks alienating the UK’s increasingly valuable existing and prospective migrant population. Doing nothing is not an option politically-speaking but coming up with strategies that actually work and are perceived to be effective by the general public is even harder.