Public concern about immigration has been fuelled by the rise of UKIP, and further driven by the Tories desperately trying to show how tough they can be on foreigners, and Labour keen not to be left out of the ‘sounding tough’ rhetoric. I am always disappointed that just about the only thing Labour has apologised for is letting too many people into the country in their 13 years.
We must stand firm against the anti-foreigner tide, and the Immigration Policy Paper, which you can read here, does exactly that. Andrew Stunell has led the working group impressively to produce a strong, balanced and compassionate document on this difficult subject.
Now that doesn’t mean we should close our eyes to the problems there are – immigration does have effects on local communities, and we provide ideas to deal with that, rather than simply ignoring it. Similarly, there are people who exploit our immigration system, with its numerous failings, to come here illegally, and take from the state. We should not tolerate abuse. We should make sure the legal routes are clear and easy for those who should go through them, and that the illegal routes are closed off.
As Liberal Democrats we vocally recognise the benefits immigration brings to the UK but we also recognise that the public has become increasingly sceptical about immigration control and parliamentary oversight. We’ve addressed this head on in the policy paper. We must rebuild trust in our system and this can only be done if, as we suggest in the paper, we make UKBA (now the Home Office again) work competently by making sure staff are well trained, well paid and motivated and on the other hand putting power back in the hands of parliament.
And fundamentally the system can only work if we actually know who is coming in and out. We’ve been driving home the importance of comprehensive exit checks for years now and will continue to do so until it is done. Otherwise, policy rests on guesswork. Public confidence in the immigration system hinges on two things – knowing who is in and who is out, and making the correct decisions quickly, so that people know where they stand. If we let these two things continue to fail, we help the xenophobes in their scaremongering.
We as liberals know that migration overall benefits Britain. We should be positive about it, and say ‘yes’ to migrants who come here to bring their skills, money and culture, enriching our society. We should have more foreign students who already contribute approximately £13bn to our economy each year. Allowing Post-Study Work visas will encourage more of them to come here and benefit our economy. By simplifying and speeding up our visa scheme we make Britain more attractive to the right people who we want here.
We have a proud history of helping those most in need, who come here fleeing persecution. We should never allow voluntary migration and asylum to be conflated. Refugees and seekers of sanctuary should be treated humanely, kept from destitution, and should be allowed to work if we take a long time to determine their claims – indeed, they should be expected to in the same way any Briton is expected to.
We would end indefinite detention; an expensive and inhumane system. We have already ended child detention for immigration purposes – the last government locked up 7,000 children in 5 years, for up to 190 days – and we have just persuaded the Home Secretary to write that into law. It should be easier for families to be reunited – the current proposals tear too many families apart.
Integration is important, and communities need help to cope with population changes. If migration is going to work for Britain it must work for British people too. That is why we would double the number of minimum wage checks, to stop wages being undercut, and set up a £1bn Community Protection Fund to relieve pressure on local housing, schools and healthcare created by rapid migrant flows. And we should help people to learn English, so they can engage with our society and be included.
The paper has a strong liberal thread running right through it. Its proposals are sensible, well thought out and will be effective when implemented. It is a paper that marries liberal aspirations and the reality we find on the ground and we should all be proud of that.
* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15