Liberal Democrats need to play smart on immigration and border controls

If we are to learn from the lessons of Trump becoming President and the EU referendum, we progressive politicians must play smarter in the area of immigration. This does not mean aping Mr Trump or Nigel Farage but working out where the real blame lies for failures in our border controls and who has accountability for fixing them.

The current government has decided landlords and schools are suddenly  quasi immigration officers. Even the Daily Mail noted that the government pilot project to require landlords to check tenants rights to live in the UK had been an abject failure. Many parents at my own children’s school complained about the need to audit the nationalities of their children and where their parents were from. Parents were not even told this was optional and that they could refuse to complete the census. The head teacher complained of the administrative burden of this new dictat. Quite rightly so, given no extra resources were given to schools to carry out this work.

This brings me back to where I think we as Liberal politicians should be looking to do more around border controls. The introduction of proper exit checks last year was long overdue and the Lib Dems contributed to this in the Coalition. Yet individual landlords and schools are being asked to mop up the mess created by previous governments. Technology initiatives from the Labour government on immigration control during the 2000s cost up to £1 billion and were not fit for purpose.

It is wrong to single out refugees as being vermin, or the cost to the tax payer of how much it costs to educate the children of EU citizens. However it is not racist nor wrong for anyone to point out that we do not know how many people have entered the UK illegally. It is simply fact. If we could not figure out how many people were born in the UK in a given year what would we think? This distinction is increasingly important.

The Economist reported that landlords would be expected to know if one of 300 different permutations of ID from Europe was valid. There will be additional costs to landlords and unnecessary bureaucracy. This is what progressives should be talking about.

Opposition politicians should be demanding the Home Office be given adequate resources and systems to track down people who are not in the UK legally. Nobody whatever political party they support can disagree that it is the Home Office who should be doing the job of policing our borders. When employees who had no right to live in the UK at Byron Burgers were rounded up and deported we should see this as a sign that the law is being respected. We should more importantly figure out how they got here in the first place.

In 43 years I have only been stopped once and had my bags searched at a UK airport. Yet other countries from Australia, to India, to China routinely screen every single bag coming in and their airports do not take any longer to exit than Heathrow. To find drugs, counterfeit goods, or other items which people should not be bringing in to the UK, a more extensive screening process is needed. I am sure the travelling public would not resent this, especially as they will have seen it elsewhere.

We absolutely should continue to call out appalling treatment of people such as the Brain family who were to be deported after their post study visa program was cancelled. They came to our country in good faith via legal means and Britain needs a system which does not discourage highly skilled people from coming to the UK to work or study because they are included in migration statistics. As a party we Lib Dems were right to change our mind on an amnesty for illegal immigration. But we were also right to end child detention, which this government has sadly re-introduced.

We do have to listen to the public after the referendum campaign. Immigration will not go away as a political issue any time soon.

By playing smarter we can show people we do care about border control and having a system which is humane, fair on everyone, protects the travelling public and prevents undercutting of wages by unscrupulous employers. Above all we need a system which  puts back the controls where they should be which is when people enter and leave Britain.


* Chris Key is dad of two girls, multilingual and internationalist. He is a Lib Dem member in Twickenham who likes holding the local council and MPs to account.

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  • Eddie Sammon 14th Nov '16 - 3:55pm

    Good article. Two points: one from either side:

    1. My brother’s wife, an EU migrant who came here legally, who also has a child here, is worried about getting deported. I’ve tried to say it’s impossible, but she says being married alone isn’t enough for her to get permanent residency status and the Tories want to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.

    2. Politics in Britain has become more polarised since Trump’s win. I can see it in people’s responses. We need to try and hold Britain together, not start adopting more extreme positions, of left or right, in response to Trump’s win.

  • Eddie
    Your brother’s wife is correct, being married to a British national is not enough for permanent residency, other restrictions would apply- income levels etc.

  • Are you also against banks & solicitors checking personal ID’s to prevent money laundering or should we have an expanded government dept to undertake this simple role ?

  • Frank Bowles 14th Nov '16 - 7:01pm

    Once upon a time internationalists wanted to pull down barriers not erect them… I’m sorry but this to me contributes to a culture of fear and distrust of foreigners and plays to authoritarian Government. As Liberals we should challenge barriers placed in our way not prop them up…

  • Jennie Rigg 14th Nov '16 - 7:54pm

    I agree with Frank.

  • Mark Wright
    From outside the EU (free movement) immigration is heavily restricted.
    Foreigners will get the message-
    Foreign tourists-don’t come the place is a rip off.
    Foreign students- there are other more friendly countries.
    Foreign importers- you can get better products elsewhere.
    Foreign investors- you are dealing with people that lack integrity.
    Adapt to the globalized world and embrace the best British qualities that are rooted in Liberalism.

  • John
    These restrictions are sometimes used to prevent perfectly legal transactions.

  • Mark
    I am talking about what will happen with an increasing xenophobia.
    London is one of the most expensive cities in the world.
    Of course British universities are kept afloat by overseas students,
    a few of them are in Britain because of my own efforts. Now it isn’t
    looking so good. Didn’t you read about the Indian governments recent request
    for more student visas that was ignored.
    Exports? Not so many made in England signs on products abroad these days.
    Most industrial companies folded in Britain decades ago.
    China is now an economic powerhouse. Are Chinese business people completely
    trusting of their British counterparts? They may be a little wary.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 14th Nov '16 - 9:15pm


    It is more than what you say . It is not about electoral success. It is common sense. Liberalsm , social democracy , any of the above , is not libertarianism or social irresponsibility. It is actually right , practically and morally to have a sensible , humane , managed and rules based immigration policy . The sort that meant my father settled here .

    Somewhere along the way people like you and me ,stopped being heard in mainstream Liberal and even social democratic politics on these issues, in favour of a libertarianism and social irresponsibility , oriented , concoction, on immigration and such , that is not in the tradition of any of the Liberal or social democratic policy or thought of previous times.

    Roy Jenkins was a liberal , tough and humane Home Secretary . He was not a bleeding heart liberal or anything like it.

    When are people going to wake up to the fact , and it is a fact , that unless we implement a completely market driven approach to public services based wholly on supply and demand ,and ability to pay entering into it more, and nobody wants that , we are going to have more and more people in line for stagnated services, flats , health , schools , the lot .

    Emigrate and settle in many countries and the state does not give you free everything at all. I am not saying we should change our approach to the public services , completely, on this ,but we should of course spend massively more to keep up with demand . We do not. People know it . They are not stupid . Parties are that can’t see it !

    Tim says “immigration is more of a blessing than a curse .” Yes, but why the religious language , he favours ? Immigration is more of a benefit to our community than not . That would be better. But it is actually not always true. Why not take the political posturing out of it . That moderating stance , like the realism of the article , might be a more valuable contribution.

  • Graham Evans 14th Nov '16 - 10:08pm

    The article discussed border controls and illegal immigration, yet the comments so far seem to refer to immigration control which is a rather different issue. Everything the writer says regarding border controls and the need to increases resources is sensible, but this will not deal with the issue of immigrants coming to this country perfectly legally to work. Better border controls and the deportation of illegal immigrants will probably have some PR benefits, though without the introduction of identity cards it will continue to be difficult to trace many illegal immigrants once they are in the country. However, I doubt whether it will change the attitude of the many people who simply want to stop immigration per se – because it is changing the nature of their communities. Moreover, I am not convinced that simply introducing quotas, a points system, or whatever method you want to control immigration, will actually change the attitudes of those who simply want no more immigration, full stop. These people want stability and order, and dislike change. Even if the Government succeeds in reducing immigration to the tens of thousands, if they all head to Boston because the local population are unwilling to become fruit pickers then the perception will be that nothing has changed. Moreover, in many of the most affluent parts of the country which voted for Brexit the main experience of immigrants that these people have is the East European care assistant visiting the elderly who are no longer capable of properly looking after themselves – and still they voted Leave.

  • Graham
    ID cards will not solve the problem illegal immigration.
    Thailand has ID cards and also many illegal migrants.

  • I’ve never understood the (I guess) Civil Service motivation at periodically pushing for Id cards. It doesn’t need a great deal of thinking to see that all they do is inconvenience the law abiding. I have a memory that pharmacists were going to be allowed to validate a person’s identity. Who could ever afford to suborn a pharmacist? They are sea-green incorruptible!

  • Richard Underhill 14th Nov '16 - 11:26pm

    Marriage gradually turns into long residence.

  • @ Mark Wright
    now we must make globalisation work for British citizens every time we step forwards.

    This one line should be printed on everyone’s forehead (not literally of course) 🙂
    It is arguably the single most important learn of the last 4 months.

    Liberalism starts at home – sometimes it seems we are so concerned with trying to fix the world – we are European, international, equality for everyone – all admirable and desirable qualities, but worth nothing if our own electorate don’t see us as able to help their lives first and foremost – we are a British Lib Dem Party are we not!

    Ideals are great, but what if uncontrolled immigration, downward pressure on wages, services creaking under the pressure of rapid influx, causes millions of our own citizens to get poorer?

    What is their view of the British Lib Dem party then who may seem more concerned with the rights of a European worker than the plight of their own citizens?

    I’ll say it again – Liberalism starts at home this is not protectionist, anti European or any of the other phrases I am aware I may be accused off by saying this.

    Surely we must get it right with our own people first, before trying to fix the world, otherwise we’re simply seen as ‘middle class do gooders’, who have forgotten the people who are actually voting, working and living here!

  • The trouble with all this is that believing that so-called ‘immigration concerns’ have anything at all to do with the technicalia of border controls and border laws. They do not. They have everything to do with racism and xenophobia.
    If you think that you’re addressing what people say when they object to ‘uncontrolled immigration’ by fiddling around with administrative details, and that if you do this you will get them to vote Lib Dem, you are wrong: what they are really saying is “I am scared of people who don’t look like me and speak a different language and have customs and religions I don’t know anything about.”
    This is not an acceptable halfway position. Either you (disastrously) embrace xenophobia and all that it entails (basically: using police and military resources to round up, intern, and expel many thousands of residents); or you accept that xenophobia is actually the problem, and bend all your energies to educating people and eliminating Little-England bigotry.
    If, however, you pretend to be doing both at the same time, while actually doing neither, you will be spit out like lukewarm water.

  • Thanks for the various comments. On the comment about ID cards, I used to be opposed. Having now seen them operate in a non invasive way in Latin America and France where I have lived, I think they are a very useful tool indeed. The benefits can include:
    – reducing risk of fraud by being able to properly identify people with a consistent form of ID (some people do not drive and have no passport).
    – being a unique identifier for all records, (police, education, tax, immigration, health etc).
    – being able to identify people in the even of a road accident/medical emergency.

    I know this is not party policy and unlikely too be any time soon. However if used in the correct way ID cards can solve many problems where systems and public services are simply not joined up.

    Even France with is about liberte, egalite and fraternite has had ID cards for many many years and you do not hear any calls to abandon them.

    The simple way to get around this would be to simply add in a photo to NI cards and extend them to children rather than create a whole new system.

  • I should also add that I would make them
    – free for all citizens with a nominal charge for replacement.
    – with photo.

  • Richard Underhill
    “Marriage gradually turns into long residence.”
    Not if your married to a non-EU national.

  • Chris Key
    ID cards can be faked but if you love ID cards then you could make your own. Just put your passport number on it. I remember NI cards (as in you will get your cards) were scrapped years ago along with NI stamps
    The gift to our own people is education unfortunately far too many don’t value it. Countries such as Israel, South Korea, Taiwan to name three are the countries getting ahead because education is culturally valued there.
    British workers outside the EU will lose the rights under the social charter that other European workers enjoy so longer working hours and low pay will become the norm in the future.

  • @Graham Evans
    Yes, improved border controls and trying to prevent and deal with illegal immigrants is the main point of the article and stating that we support these will improve our party image.

  • I must add to my comment, that it is very important to remember that to prevent social upheaval, frightened and fearful people need some reassurance, especially those who do not mind some change, but get upset and overreact when it happens too fast.

  • Dear Chris,

    I am fine with preventing people from illegally entering any country, and the UK certainly has all the legal defenses required (in addition its most effective geographic one: water).

    The political substance of the matter, however, is the volume of legal immigration. So, please forgive me, if I deviate a little from your topic.

    The former Home Secretary Theresa May has come down hard on non-EU immigration resulting in a net influx of 190.000, twice the Tories’ overall target. Limiting Indian student visa, and sending them home on the day of their graduation was one of the measures which now turns out to be extremely helpful in replacing the EU single market with commonwealth trade. I would suspect that family-reunions, students, business- and NHS-requirements will continue to generate 6 digit non-EU immigration.

    Similar reasoning applies to EU-immigration with the notable difference that the EU is a shrinking pool of people going both ways, depending on relative prospects, so the flow from SE to NW should be peaking right now. Even if EU-immigration were fully controlled, it would probably also exceed 100.000 p.a. This means that even a very radical and damaging immigration regime would not bring net immigration below 200.000.

    There are two conclusions: Firstly, the tens of thousands goal is a stupid and scandalous impossibility. Secondly, the potential reduction, even if considered beneficial (which it is not) would be too small to justify the economic pains of Brexit.

    More generally speaking, The UK is one of the few advanced countries that could avoid the demographic meltdown which is certain to continental Europe and already visible in Japan. The UK is culturally prepared and has the unique language advantage. You should take in quality-immigration from Europe and the rest of the English-speaking world. Continental Europe will have to settle for Africans moving north. They will also fight it for a while, but it will happen.

  • Little Jackie Paper 15th Nov '16 - 12:15pm

    ID cards I suspect are neither the affront nor the panacea they are presented as being. To an extent I say meh!

    Arnold Kiel – ‘You should take in quality-immigration from Europe and the rest of the English-speaking world. Continental Europe will have to settle for Africans moving north. They will also fight it for a while, but it will happen.’

    This is a wind-up isn’t it?

  • I agree with Chris Key in that we need to address our border controls and the laws related to them. Thus we should check passports on entry and issue appropriately time limited visa’s – just as many other countries do. Likewise, we should check passports on exit and match the two. This enables use to better enforce our existing laws on visa overstays and illegal immigrations.

    I suspect that if we actually publicly policed our borders and were seen to enforce our laws on those found to be deliberately transgressing our laws, we would see a noticeable reduction in the number of ‘chancers’ coming to the UK.

    Aside: One example of a ‘chancer’, is what is the current likelihood of someone overstaying a visa being detected, physically apprehended and removed from the country? I suspect it is very low and hence people, particularly those with friends and family here, would be prepared to take the risk knowing there was a high probably they would be able to remain long enough to gain a favourable ruling on their residency status…

    Would this turn 633,000pa into 63,300pa? Highly unlikely, most likely to only cause a 1~5% reduction. However, its impact would be on the emigration figures and illegals (those that don’t appear in the figures) and thus would help reduce net migration, but even then expect the effect to be in the 1~5% area. The biggest effect of having border controls enforce will be greater accuracy and confidence in the migration figures and a reduction in those who pay lip service to our laws, arriving or remaining in the country.

  • Sue Sutherland 15th Nov '16 - 1:35pm

    I’d like to support David-1. I don’t think there’s much point in saying you’re anti immigration so you’re a xenophobe and a racist so I’m going to ignore you. It’s not good that people are frightened of a large number of strangers coming into their community but as humans we aren’t all perfect. What is needed is a lot of community work to enable both groups to make personal contact to hear each other’s stories, education starting at school age and financial support for local services, instead there is nothing and local services are being starved of money by this government. In some cases, like the American Indians, or Australian aborigines, it seems perfectly reasonable to beware large numbers of immigrants.
    Another problem is that immigration has become more difficult for those married to or living with a British resident as Theresa May has tried to reduce numbers while EU nationals have free movement. I think we have to step back from the present rules and see how best we as Liberals would deal with the subject in our world without knee jerk reactions.

  • Sue Sutherland 15th Nov '16 - 1:47pm

    I think this is related to our discussion here. When we are born we have the ability to relate to all types of faces (a good survival mechanism) but after about the age of six we lose this ability if we only see one type of face, so we can no longer distinguish individual characteristics in faces that we don’t have experience of. Could this be one of the reasons why people in areas of low diversity voted for Brexit more than people with high diversity? They are literally seeing people as a blanket “other” group not as individuals.
    Also I know the Tories are saying they don’t want to stop educated migrants from coming here, just the poor who cause the trouble, but I do hope we aren’t going to fall for this. Anyway I believe that some of the EU citizens who come here are well over-educated for the jobs they do because of pay differentials.

  • Little Jackie Paper 15th Nov '16 - 2:02pm

    Sue Sutherland – ‘Also I know the Tories are saying they don’t want to stop educated migrants from coming here, just the poor who cause the trouble, but I do hope we aren’t going to fall for this. Anyway I believe that some of the EU citizens who come here are well over-educated for the jobs they do because of pay differentials.’

    But isn’t this really the exact problem in this picture. The problem is not so much that over-educated people are coming here, but that not enough UK people are going to the A8/A2 countries. This is not a reciprocal union and to say as much is, I think, no more than a statement of fact. If 2+m young UK un/underemployed all headed to the A8/A2 tomorrow for wages/housing/benefits then we’d have had a 95% IN vote.

    Try here –

    Yes, it might be great that the EU is letting granny sell her bubble-priced houses to a French banker and head to the Costas to run down the clock. But there really is more to free movement than that.

  • The UK’s only land border isn’t controlled, anyone can walk across it. (The controls are at Irish sea and airports of course) Long may it remain that way.

  • Peter Chambers 15th Nov '16 - 11:37pm


    “Thus we should check passports on entry and issue appropriately time limited visa’s – just as many other countries do. Likewise, we should check passports on exit and match the two.”

    This assumes that government could acquire and operate the necessary IT. Despite the determination of Mrs May as Home Secretary, this task seems beyond them. Oddly Facebook et al have little trouble tracking their customers. Who is accountable for this unsatisfactory state of affairs?

  • @Peter Chambers – I agree, there seems to be a total lack of political will – going back to the 1980’s and possibly the 1970’s, when the seeds were sown. Given how high profile and contentious immigration has been for the last twenty years, this means it isn’t just the various Home Secretaries but the Executive of every government since (and possibly including) Margaret Thatcher.

    I, therefore think part of the problem is that when it was relatively simple to do something, namely when immigration was significantly lower than today, such systems would have been seen as a low priority. John Major’s and Tony Blair’s adminstration’s compounded the problem by signing up to free movement without ensuring we had suitable controls in place (yes ‘controls’ – there is nothing in the EU “free movement of workers” that prohibit the inspection of passports/id cards, just as holders of Oyster cards simply swipe in and out when using the tube) and by not being prepared for the increase in EU migration being mirrored by non-EU migration (the ONS data clearly shows this mirroring). Subsequent administrations (including the Coalition) simply compounded the problem through their treating the problem as an elephant in the room that, if ignored, would quietly go away.

    However, in saying the above, we should not forget the role the “right-on” PC crowd have played in shouting ‘racist’, ‘xenophobe’ etc. and generally insulting anyone who attempts to address the issue and thus contributing to making the issue divisive and thus toxic.

  • Roland
    Britain is not part of the Schengen area (Norway and Iceland are). Everyone who comes to Britain and Ireland has their passport checked on arrival. A biometric passport can be swiped through (if the machine functions) I have been coming and going from Britain for the last forty years and have always had to show my passport. As I said with biometric passports the checks are now more effective.

  • Manfarang – They must see you coming! 🙂
    In the last 20 years, I’ve noticed a marked reduction in the number of times I have to do anything more than show the cover of my passport as I pass through border/passport control…

    Agree about the reliability of biometric passport checking machines – their failure seems to be a factor in passport control simply waving people through. As for the effectiveness of the checks, I’ve yet to be convinced the checks the UK performs go anywhere near maintaining a database of people who have entered the country, their visa status and matching that to when they leave. In today’s world of “Big Data” the volume of data being collected and retained isn’t all that great.

  • Roland
    Yes they looked only at the cover page in my passport the same as you.
    However they realized that to properly check passports requires that the passports are biometric.
    I have also been through the other section with a foreign national and they are subject to a more detailed inspection.

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