A year ago, we were in the middle of a general election campaign. And there was one message I heard loud and clear on the doorstep: we want things to be different. People said they wanted a government that didn't just do what was good for the headline or good for their party but good for the long term and good for our country. That's what we're engaged in.
Clearly, cutting public spending isn't popular, but it's right to bring sense to our public finances. People said they wanted a government that actually trusted them to use their own common sense. That's the kind of government we want to be – giving neighbourhoods and individuals a whole range of new powers . . . scrapping so much of the bureaucracy that drove us mad.
People said they were sick of seeing those who did the right thing get punished and the wrong thing rewarded. Again, that's what we're acting on. In welfare we're ending the system that took money from hard-working taxpayers and gave it to people who refused to work. These are the differences we are trying to make – listening to people, doing the hard and necessary work of changing our country for the better.
But there was something else we heard on the doorstep – and it was this: "We are concerned about the levels of immigration in our country . . . but we are fed up of hearing politicians talk tough but do nothing." Here, again, we are determined to be different.
Now, immigration is a hugely emotive subject . . . and it's a debate too often in the past shaped by assertions rather than substantive arguments. We've all heard them. The assertion that mass immigration is an unalloyed good and that controlling it is economic madness . . . the view that Britain is a soft touch and immigrants are out to take whatever they can get. I believe the role of politicians is to cut through the extremes of this debate and approach the subject sensibly and reasonably.
The last government, in contrast, actually helped to inflame the debate. On the one hand, there were Labour ministers who closed down discussion, giving the impression that concerns about immigration were somehow racist. On the other, there were ministers hell-bent on burnishing their hard-line credentials by talking tough . . . but doing nothing to bring the numbers down.
This approach had damaging consequences in terms of controlling immigration . . . but also in terms of public debate. It created the space for extremist parties to flourish, as they could tell people that mainstream politicians weren't listening to their concerns or doing anything about them. I remember when immigration wasn't a central political issue in our country – and I want that to be the case again. I want us to starve extremist parties of the oxygen of public anxiety they thrive on and extinguish them once and for all.
Above all, I want to get the policy right: good immigration, not mass immigration. That's why I believe it's time for a new approach – one which opens up debate, not closes it down; where politicians don't just talk, but actually act.
Let's start with being open. The British people are fair-minded – and I want them to feel they can be honest about what they think about this subject. Here's what I think. Our country has benefited immeasurably from immigration. Go into any hospital and you'll find people from Uganda, India and Pakistan who are caring for our sick and vulnerable. Go into schools and universities and you'll find teachers from all over the world, inspiring our young people. Go to almost any high street in the country and you'll find entrepreneurs from overseas who are not just adding to the local economy but playing a part in local life. Charities, financial services, fashion, food, music – all these sectors are what they are because of immigration. So yes, immigrants make a huge contribution to Britain. We recognise that – and we welcome it.
But I'm also clear about something else: for too long, immigration has been too high. Between 1997 and 2009, 2.2 million more people came to live in this country than left to live abroad. That's the largest influx of people Britain has ever had . . . and it has placed real pressures on communities up and down the country. Not just pressures on schools, housing and healthcare – though those have been serious . . . but social pressures, too. Because real communities aren't just collections of public service users living in the same space.
Real communities are bound by common experiences . . . forged by friendship and conversation . . . knitted together by all the rituals of the neighbourhood, from the school run to the chat down the pub. And these bonds can take time. So real integration takes time.
That's why, when there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods . . . perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there . . . on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate . . . that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods.
This has been the experience for many people in our country – and I believe it is untruthful and unfair not to speak about it and address it.
So, taking all this into account, I believe controlling immigration and bringing it down is of vital importance to the future of our country. That's why during the election campaign, Conservatives made a clear commitment to the British people . . . that we would aim to reduce net migration to the levels we saw in the 1980s and 1990s.
Now we are in government, we are on track to meet that aim. We are controlling legal immigration – having introduced a cap on non-EU economic migrants. We are clamping down on illegal immigration. And we are getting to grips with the asylum system, too. The UK Border Agency is now close to clearing the backlog of almost half a million asylum cases. Our action is working.
But some myths have crept in – about what we're doing and the impact our policies will have. There are those who say that whatever measures we put in place, we can't control immigration significantly. And there are those who accept we can control immigration, but argue that the way we propose to do it will damage our economy and universities. Today I want to take those myths head-on.
Immigration from Europe
Let me begin by addressing those who say we can't control immigration. They have three planks to their argument. First, they say legal immigration is impossible to control because we're a member of the European Union. Second, they argue that illegal immigration can't be controlled either because it's impossible to properly police. And third, they say that immigration will always be high because immigrant workers do jobs that British people won't do.
Each part of that argument is wrong. Take this question of Europe. Yes, our borders are open to people from other member states in the European Union. But actually, this counts for a small proportion of overall net migration to the UK. In the year up to June 2010, net migration to our country from EU nationals was just 27,000.
That's not to say migration from Europe has been insignificant. Since 2004, when many large eastern European countries joined the EU, more than one million people from those countries have come to live and work in the UK – a huge number. We said back then that transitional controls should have been put in place to restrict the numbers coming over. And now we're in government, if and when new countries join the European Union, transitional controls will be put in place.
But this remains the fact: when it comes to immigration to our country, it's the numbers from outside the EU that really matter. In the year up to June 2010, net migration from nationals of countries outside the EU to the UK totalled 198,000. This is the figure we can more easily control and should control.
Last week, our new immigration cap for people coming here to work from outside the EU came into force. It means for the next twelve months, we will not allow employers to recruit more than 20,700 skilled workers from outside Europe. And we've already shown a cap can work. Last July, we placed interim limits on the number of visas we would give for skilled workers – and this kept the numbers down to under 20,000.
Of course employment is just one of the routes of entry and settlement into this country. Every year tens of thousands of people marry into Britain or join their families here. Now many of these are genuine, loving relationships. But we also know there are abuses of the system.
For a start there are forced marriages taking place in our country, and overseas as a means of gaining entry to the UK. This is the practice where some young British girls are bullied and threatened into marrying someone they don't want to. I've got no time for those who say this is a culturally relative issue – it is wrong, full stop, and we've got to stamp it out.
Then there are just the straightforward sham marriages. Last summer, we ordered the UK Border Agency to clamp down on these and they've had significant success, making 155 arrests. And there was also the shocking case of a vicar who was jailed for staging over 300 sham marriages.
But as well as abuse of the system, there are other problems with the family route. We know, for instance, that some marriages take place when the spouse is very young, and has little or no grasp of English. Again we cannot allow cultural sensitivity to stop us from acting. That's why last November we introduced a requirement for all those applying for a marriage visa to demonstrate a minimum standard of English . . . and we will defend the age limit of 21 for spouses coming to the UK.
So however sensitive or difficult a subject it may be, we are tightening up the family route. But by far the biggest route for non-EU entrants into this country has been the student visa route. Immigration by students has almost trebled in the past decade. Last year, some 303,000 visas were issued overseas for study in the UK.
But this isn't the end of the story. Because a lot of those students bring people with them to this country . . . husbands, wives, children. Indeed, last year, 32,000 visas were issued to the dependents of students. Again, many of these applications are for legitimate students doing legitimate courses with legitimate dependents coming over with them. But we know that some of these student applications are bogus, and in turn their dependents are bogus.
Consider this: a sample of 231 visa applications for the dependents of students found that only twenty-five percent of them were genuine dependents. The others? Some were clearly gaming the system and had no genuine or loving relationship with the student. Others we just couldn't be sure about.
The whole system was out of control – and we're now getting to grips with it. We're targeting bogus colleges that offer sham courses. We're making sure that anyone studying a degree-level course has a proper grasp of the English language. We're saying that only postgraduate students can bring dependents.
And we're making sure that if people come over here to study, they should be studying not working . . . and that when they've finished their studies, they go home unless they are offered a graduate-level skilled job, with a minimum salary.
Taken together, we estimate that these proposals will cut the number of student visas issued by around 80,000 a year. So across all the main routes of entry to Britain – work, family, education – we are taking action, simultaneously. And the key word here is 'simultaneously'.
As the Home Secretary has said, controlling immigration by clamping down on one route alone is "like squeezing a balloon . . . Push down work visas and the number of student visas will shoot up. Clamp down on student visas and family visas will spring up."
For years, people have been playing the system, exploiting the easiest routes of entry to the UK. Now, because of what we're doing, this country finally has consistent controls right across the immigration system.
But as I said in a speech in opposition, what matters most is not who comes into the country but who stays. Of course there are fair and legitimate reasons for people who arrive here temporarily to stay here permanently. But the figures clearly suggest that many gain temporary entry into the UK with no plans to leave. More than a fifth of students who entered Britain in 2004 were still here five years later – and many were supposed to be coming to study short courses.
But the most significant route to permanent settlement is the economic migration route. Last year, 84,000 people who initially came on a work visa got the right to settle here. I want Britain to continue to attract the best workers. But it cannot be right that people coming to fill short-term skills gaps can stay long-term.
As the Cross-Party Balanced Migration Group has argued, it is essential we break that link between temporary visas and permanent settlement.
They are right – that's what this government is determined to do . . . and we will consult on how best to proceed on this in the coming months.
So this is the progress we are making on cutting legal immigration and clamping down on the abuse of legitimate entry routes. And we are cracking down on illegal immigration, too. This is a question of fairness – yes, to the British people . . . but also to those who have been shipped over here against their will, kept as slaves and forced to work horrendous hours.
So as part of our National Crime Agency, we are establishing a proper border policing command which will crack down on people smuggling. And because of better technology and closer working with the French, we have managed to cut the number of people identified trying to cross the Channel illegally by two thirds last year.
At the same time as stopping illegal immigrants coming to Britain, we are doing something about those who are already here. Two nationwide campaigns targeting illegal migrants have resulted in 1400 arrests, 330 prosecutions and 260 removals. And in the six months to the end of February, we collected some £3.6m in fines from employers of illegal workers.
What's more, we're closing the loophole that has allowed people who have worked here illegally to get unemployment benefits. Estimates suggest that as many as 155,000 illegal workers might be able to do this . . . with some eligible to claim over £5,000 in employment seekers allowance – each year.
That's wrong – and we're stopping it. We're making sure that only people who have the right to work here can claim benefits. And we also recently announced that anyone who owes money to the NHS will be refused entry to the UK until they have paid back their debts.
So across border control, health policy, benefits policy . . . we are taking decisive action to close the gaps that for too long have allowed people to come here illegally and to stay here illegally.
So we can control both legal and illegal immigration. What is required is political will and the drive to make sure this agenda runs right across government.
But the third argument put forward by those who say we can't control immigration is that immigration is not just a problem of supply but of demand. Put simply, immigration will always be high because British people won't do the jobs migrant workers do.
I can see why this argument is made. Since 1997, the number of people in work in our economy has gone up by some 2.5 million. And of this increase, around 75% was accounted for by foreign-born workers . . . many of whom were employed to clean offices, serve in restaurants or work on building sites. At the same time we have had persistently, eye-wateringly high numbers of British born people stuck on welfare.
But let's be clear about what our conclusions should be from this. This is not a case of 'immigrants coming over here and taking our jobs'. The fact is – except perhaps in the very short-term – there are not a fixed number of jobs in our economy. If one hundred migrant workers come into the country, they don't simply displace job opportunities for a hundred British citizens. Of course they take up vacancies that are available, but they also come and create wealth and new jobs.
The real issue is this: migrants are filling gaps in the labour market left wide open by a welfare system that for years has paid British people not to work. That's where the blame lies – at the door of our woeful welfare system, and the last government who comprehensively failed to reform it.
So immigration and welfare reform are two sides of the same coin. Put simply, we will never control immigration properly unless we tackle welfare dependency. That's another powerful reason why this government is undertaking the biggest shake-up of the welfare system for generations . . . making sure that work will always pay . . . and ending the option of living a life on the dole when a life in work is possible.
Take all these actions together, and I believe we are proving that we can control immigration.
But there's another group of people I want to take on. The ones who accept we can control immigration, but have doubts about what our reforms will mean. The first thing they say is: these policies will deny British business of the talent they need to succeed. That's plain wrong. Nothing – nothing – is more important to this government than growing our economy, creating jobs and prosperity across our country.
That's why far from simply salami-slicing numbers coming here with no thought to the impact that will have on business, we have thought incredibly carefully about how we can select and attract the world's brightest to our shores.
This was something the last government comprehensively failed to do. Yes, they introduced a points-based system for immigration, where people were admitted to our country according to the levels of skills they had . . . but only after being repeatedly called to do so by the Conservative party.
Yet once they put this in place, they failed to properly control it and effectively manage it. For example, tier one visas were supposed to be reserved for only the highest skilled migrants. But the evidence shows almost a third of people who came over on one of these visas were not employed in highly skilled jobs. Some were found stacking shelves in supermarkets or driving taxis – and that's if they were employed at all.
Tier two visas were supposed to be reserved for skilled jobs such as engineers. But again, these visas were abused and misused. In one case, an applicant applied as an "elite chef" for a fried chicken shop. The main qualifying criterion was the rate of pay. So in this case, his sister, who owned the shop decided to pay him exactly the amount that allowed him to qualify. There was nothing the authorities could do and he was allowed in.
So it has fallen to this government to sort out the system – and we are completely changing the way it works so it is truly geared to the needs of our economy. We are reforming tier one, to make sure that it is genuinely a route only for the best. As part of that package of reform, we are introducing a new route for people of exceptional talent – like scientists, academics and artists. And we are introducing a new entrepreneur visa, to roll out the red carpet for anyone who has a great business idea and serious investment.
We are also reforming tier two visas. Business leaders have told us that as a country, we should prioritise skilled tier two, workers with a job offer rather than highly-skilled tier one workers without a job offer. So that's what we're doing.
For the coming year, even as we have reduced the number of economic migrants overall by seven thousand, we have actually increased the number of tier two visas available. And we have also raised the skills level so it is only open to graduate-level occupations – and excludes other jobs like careworkers and cooks. What's more, we have exempted what are called 'intra-company transfers' from the limit while raising standards at the same time . . . so firms can still move their employees around the world, but not to fill permanent jobs that could be done by UK workers.
So I completely reject the idea that our new immigration rules will damage our economy.
The second thing some say is that our policies on student visas will damage our universities. Again, let me make clear: this government will do nothing to harm Britain's status as a magnet for the world's best students. That's why with us, if you're good at your subject, can speak English and have been offered a place on a course at a trusted institution – you will be able to get a visa to study here.
Put another way, Britain's universities are free to market themselves globally saying: "You can come and study here at some of the finest institutions anywhere in the world – and you can stay and work in a graduate job after you leave."
That makes our country a hugely attractive destination for genuine students who genuinely want to study abroad. What we don't want is for this to be a hugely attractive destination for people who only want a passage to Britain. So we are cracking down on the abuses of the system.
In recent years there has also grown up a thriving industry of bogus colleges, providing bogus qualifications as cover for bogus visas. Of the 744 private colleges on the UK Border Agency sponsor register in January, only 131 had attained highly trusted sponsor status.
Yet, as of mid-January this year, the 613 private colleges who are not "highly trusted" have been able to sponsor 280,000 students between them. The potential for abuse is clearly enormous.
Indeed, we have been looking into the practice of some so-called colleges. In one case, students were sent off to so-called work placements in locations up to 280 miles away from the college where they were supposed to be studying on a regular basis.
In another, students were found working in 20 different locations and undertaking no study time whatsoever. In yet another case, there were two lecturers for 940 students.
Want to know how ridiculous things have got? An Indian organisation which helps people get student visas has put up a massive billboard in that country. It's got a picture of London bus and the words "get a free ride to the UK" emblazoned across it.
Clearly, we cannot – and should not – put up with any of this. That's why we're getting to grips with the abuse and that's why I reject the idea that our policy will damage our universities.
It really is simple: if you're a genuine academic institution – you have nothing to worry about. But if you're not, you do – and I make no apology for that.
What I have set out today is a sober, comprehensive and effective plan to cut immigration, and cut it substantially. Sober because we come to this debate clear-headed about not only the benefits of immigration . . . but also its impact on our public services, communities and society. Comprehensive because we are leaving no stone unturned, taking action across all routes of entry to our country. And effective – because we are doing all this in a way that strengthens our economy and enhances the status of our universities.
This time last year, we said we would listen to people's concerns and get immigration under control. Today I can confidently say that we are getting there.
If we take the steps set out today, and deal with all the different avenues of migration, legal and illegal, then levels of immigration can return to where they were in the 1980s and 1990s, a time when immigration was not a front rank political issue. And I believe that will mean net migration to this country will be in the order of tens of thousands each year, not the hundreds of thousands every year that we have seen over the last decade.
Yes, Britain will always be open to the best and brightest from around the world and those fleeing persecution. But with us, our borders will be under control and immigration will be at levels our country can manage. No ifs. No buts. That's a promise we made to the British people. And it's a promise we are keeping.