Julian Huppert writes: Working towards a competent immigration system

immigrationAs a liberal, I believe that we benefit from immigration. Overall, this country is a richer place, economically and culturally, because we have people from around the world coming here to work, study and play. I want to see an immigration system that works, is fair and allows us to benefit from the best and brightest as well as offering sanctuary and asylum for those fleeing the most desperate situations imaginable abroad.

However, that case is not made often enough. We hear constant rhetoric from the Tories and the right wing press about how we must clamp down on foreigners, and Labour are often no better – why is it that just about the only thing Labour have apologised for is their liberal immigration policy?

Of course, there are problems. There are people who come here illegally, exploiting loopholes in the system. There are people who are exploited by landlords, crammed into accommodation unsuitable for their numbers. People sometimes have to wait years for the Home Office to determine if they can have asylum in this country, and people are left destitute by that process. People come here to access our excellent free health service, and leave without paying the costs.

There is much we can do to improve our immigration system, and it should not be about anti-foreigner rhetoric. But having heard all that awful rhetoric coming out over the summer, I was terrified about what to expect from the Immigration Bill. Theresa May and David Cameron threatened all sorts of things, in an effort to sounds tough on foreigners, from turning school teachers into immigration officers to punitive bonds. And we know where the more extreme Tories wanted to be – just look at the ‘Alternative Queen’s Speech’. Returning asylum seekers to the ‘nearest safe country’, restricting access foreign nationals have to public services such as schools, criminalising illegal immigrants regardless of the reasons they’ve come here, and more.

But the bill, now that it has come out, is not anything like as bad as I had feared. The worst of the Tory excesses have been stripped out of it – although it’s still nothing like the Immigration Bill I would write if given a free hand. I would focus far more on sorting out the visa service – UKBA as was – so it was fit for purpose.

There is still a way to go before we have a Bill we’re happy with. For starters, the idea that landlords should check immigration papers is absurd. The Tories wanted to introduce this system across the country. We said no. The scheme is likely to lead to landlords discriminating against those who look ‘foreign’ and increase the numbers left homeless and destitute. Their option would of course be to burrow further underground and into the hands of rogue and exploitative landlords. There is a problem – there are vulnerable people crammed into inappropriate accommodation. But this is not the solution.

They wanted this to start everywhere – we’re allowing them to try it, in one place and one place only. That will make it easier to scrap afterwards, but should also make sure they don’t come up with it again and again – they may realise they need worked through policies rather than gimmicks in future. A new vote has to happen before it rolls out further – and we won’t let that pass.

As for the £200 service charge to access the NHS, I actually don’t think it’s all that bad. People from outside the EEA are currently supposed to pay, and are supposed to be asked for their immigration status. Mostly, though, they are not asked and don’t pay. This is not a good situation, where the rules are applied randomly to some people and not others.

This way, once someone has paid, they get an NHS number, and then will never have to answer questions in hospital about their status, and they won’t have to pay. Frankly, £200 for free medical care for a year is great value – if you went to the US it would cost far more.

There are other things I want to see dealt with in this Bill – ways of liberalising our current systems, and I will seek to achieve them, from fixing the problems of people unable to inherit citizenship, to improving our asylum system.

We have often been painted by Labour and the Tories as being weak on immigration. I want us to show that we are competent on immigration. We should argue for systems that work, that let the right people in, quickly and easily, and rejecting people who shouldn’t come here fairly and reasonably. We should make the case for the benefits the UK gets from immigration, but be honest where it does cause us problems. We should be liberal and proud of it.

* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15

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  • Yup. Agree with all of this.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th Oct '13 - 10:04am

    A good, brave and balanced article. I agree we should be against landlord immigration checks because it is not only bad for legal immigrants and descendants of immigrants, but also business, landlords and possibly the treasury too.

    I also think we should say that we believe in free-movement of people, but that it needs to be introduced slowly. We cannot just open the borders immediately to any country that the EU asks us to. However this is the image that the country is going to get of us if we get on board Nick Clegg’s “why I’m In” campaign. Someone in the parliamentary party needs to rise up against Nick Clegg, because what he is doing is now tantamount to political vandalism of the party.

  • Agreed about the rented housing rules. My immigrant colleagues are currently trying to find a room to rent in a shared house in Oxford. One has just viewed a room where she was one of 250 applicants. When demand for rented housing is so high, it’s inevitable that some landlords will simply filter out the foreign sounding names to greatly reduce the chance of a £3000 fine.

    On the NHS charges, what happens when someone at a hospital in need of emergency treatment hasn’t paid their NHS access charge? We don’t want doctors and nurses beholden to a ‘Computer Says No’ culture where people are left to die because they don’t have the right credentials. The Bill also provides basically infinite scope for the Secretary of State to change the charges as (s)he pleases.

    However the worst stuff in this nasty Bill isn’t addressed in this article. Clause 2 extends search powers, Clause 3 restricts bail applications, Clauses 4 to 10 extend the state’s powers over biometric data, Clause 11 removes the right of appeal for many visa applicants, Clause 14 dictates to judges how Theresa May wants ECHR Article 8 to be applied. I think every single clause in this Bill expands the state’s power over the individual. Julian says “We should be liberal and proud of it.” I can’t be proud of our party helping this dreadful legislation pass. And if it’s “not anything like as bad as I had feared” then I daren’t ask how Julian thought it could be worse!

    It’s Clause 11 that’s the most terrifying. Removing appeal rights when UKBA (or whatever they’re called now) is so prone to making the wrong decision is ghastly and will ruin lives. Stop it stop it stop it.

  • Duncan has put his finger on it. Clause 11 is awful and will have the slightly odd effect of incentivising Judicial Review and Human Rights appeals. Then again, the legal aid residence test will stop a lot of those effected from mounting a JR claim anyway.

    On the NHS levy, this seems to ignore the contribution migrants make through taxation while in the country. And if we accept this as a principle, why not charge those temporary migrants with school aged children an additionally levy for the costs of school places, or charge victims of crime for the costs of police time to investigate and prosecute?

  • Julian is spot on that the main problem is (and has been for years) that UKBA/Home Office/whichever agency is dealing with it at the moment are utterly unable to deal with the process quickly and efficiently. This leads directly on the problems we have where there are lots of people living here who haven’t been processed and exist in limbo. Most of this bill tinkers around the edges rather than getting to grips with the central problem.

    FWIW, I think a competent approach would involve:

    1. Creating an agency focused on the past cases who would have broad discretion to allow people to stay based on reasonable criteria and would deport those who don’t. Pragmatically, everyone knows that it is wholly impractical to try to remove everyone who is here illegally but fear of the dread “amnesty” word is paralysing sensible discussion.

    2. A properly resourced agency/department which only deals with current applicants. It should be an absolute priority to deal with applicants in days or weeks so that people are not lost in the system.

    We can have a distinctly liberal policy along those lines and avoid the trap of entering the arms-races of who can be tougher on migrants. Incidentally, whilst the policy might not be “populist”, it would be supported by business, ethnic minority voters, NGOs and religious groups to name but a few. Is it too much to ask that the policy review develops something that is both sensible and liberal?

  • Whilst Julian’s pitch is comforting, I find it lacking in substance, but that may just be me. To me, dicing things one way, there seems to be two major groups of ‘legal immigrants’: those who can come here without visa’s and effectively have free movement, and those that require visa’s. It seems the main thrust of the system is towards those who require visa’s, hence why ideas such as the NHS service charge sound reasonable, but then we do need to consider how this would work for say EU nationals who don’t need visa’s…

    Fundamentally the challenge our immigration system has is that somehow it has to implement a policy that doesn’t grow the population – remember we’re having problems looking after our existing population…

  • Any policy must include a commitment to join Schengen asap. It’s ridiculous that our border controls and our spending on border controls are focussed on checking people (most of them British) arriving from other EU countries.

  • ‘Overall, this country is a richer place, economically and culturally, because we have people from around the world coming here to work, study and play’ …Well Culturally may be, but unless you are of the ‘belief’ that wages, contrary to all other goods, do not follow the laws of supply and demand, then large scale economic migration will cause a fall in the real term living standards of the majority of people in Britain. You could at least be honest and include that in any future presentation in favour of such immigration.

  • Though the Tories can justify everything in this Bill, to themselves at least, it is left to the Lib Dems to check every clause detail and change or block wherever necessary. It might be an easy option to change imperfect laws into draconian laws which ruin lives for decades because Parliament didn’t spend enough time examining the consequences. But changes to the law need care not wild and gratuitous wishes by extremists of any persuasion.

    I have a family member who visits UK every year to see those of us who live here. The visitor visa is always applied for correctly and granted correctly – since that year we worked out how much has to be maintained in various bank accounts. All matters are financial whether people like it or not. [I had an ancestor who died in the workhouse – financial inadequacy can lead to unfortunate endings] Our family has always assumed that because we can fund everything needed for our family visitor, including medical care should it be necessary, the system was understood and clear. We support our visitor in every way and like the system as it is for family members who are not British. My concerns are that this Tory-led government wants to change ‘everything’ that this country has tried and tested over many years because some aspects have been corrupted by some. We haven’t corrupted any aspect of the law, nor would we.

    Laws which need a change have to be changed carefully, or it’s ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’. And we know how long it takes to clear up a bad law. No-one knows how these particular changes will work out for those of us who always do the right thing according to the existing laws. So the one statement I really applaud from Julian, if it can actually happen – is that any new scheme, dream or shot in the dark should be tried and tested fully. This change cannot be delivered by having loose reins in government and with another U-turn to correct it later. How many lives can be ruined by foolish and premature changes to the law which our legislative body [Parliament] didn’t examine carefully. Once again NC, as Deputy PM, has to block – this time anything which can possibly lead to more misery for countless families who have visitors who originate from other countries outside the EU.

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