Our policy of offering families, who have been here for years and want to pay taxes a route to citizenship (provided they want to work, speak English and want to commit to the UK in the long term) came under attack not just from the BNP, but Labour and Tories as well.
It is, therefore, with some irony that I read last week that an effective amnesty for tens of thousands of illegal immigrants has been brought about by the inability of the UK borders agency to manage the backlog of cases built up during the Labour years.
Coming on top of the damaging restrictions imposed on businesses seeking to recruit skilled professional and managerial staff (and Universities endeavouring to enrol overseas students), the coalition immigration policy, designed to meet the Tory pledge of net migration in the ‘tens of thousands’, is unravelling at the seams.
The Labour government’s record on immigration was an unmitigated disaster, as John Cruddas MP for Dagenham and Rainham now acknowledges. Every developed country in the world needs to maintain robust and efficient border and immigration controls. The Labour government declined to take advantage of the seven-year transition period available when the countries of Eastern Europe were admitted to the European Union. Also, exit checks are yet to be re-instituted, without which there is no way of knowing how many temporary visitors and residents have over-stayed their Visa.
Our 2010 Manifesto proposed to tailor immigration policy regionally to housing and employment resources, as they do in Australia and Canada. This regional points-based immigration system was designed to ensure that immigration is targeted on areas that are under-populated and want more immigration, like Scotland.
We advocated making the asylum system, for those fleeing real persecution, fairer by taking responsibility away from the Home Office and giving it to a Canadian-style independent agency, with the aim of substantially reducing the number of decisions overturned on appeal. We also proposed to allow asylum seekers to work while they were going through the process of immigration clearance to eliminate the situation where such immigrants remain dependent on welfare benefits for very long periods of time.
So much of these sensible and pragmatic proposals have been side-lined by an undeliverable Tory commitment, based around a short-term populist approach that undermines Britain’s historically liberal approach to immigration.
Vince Cable and David Willetts have fought a valiant rearguard action to curb the most damaging aspects of current immigration policy. Surely, it is high time that overseas students and staff temporarily resident here are removed from net migration targets altogether.
We will need a robust, liberal and pragmatic immigration policy, competently managed, that promotes economic growth (as advocated by the Economist) going into the next election.
The current coalition effort will not suffice.
* Joe Bourke is an accountant, former parliamentary candidate and Treasurer of Hounslow Liberal Democrats