What of our long-resident irregular immigrants?

Tim Finch and IPPR find “no easy options”.

As the government introduces increasingly restrictive measures to cut down on legal immigration, the problem of the large and long-resident illegal or irregular immigrant population remains largely unresolved.

This population built up in the late 1990s and first decade of this century when international migration boomed and the UK's immigration systems proved hopelessly inadequate to the task of managing inflows and outflows.

Anyone who has worked in the migration sector, as I have, will have heard frequent stories of people who have stayed in this country for many years with no legal status, who've been able to find work and accommodation, who've started relationships or even families, and who've put down roots. They shouldn't really be here, but they are – and removing them after so long is difficult, to say the least.

In a major new IPPR report called No Easy Options we set ourselves the task of trying to come up with new ideas to solve this thorny issue. As the title implies, we certainly did not find a magic solution. Rather, we concluded that this government will have to pursue a raft of policies over many years, starting in the countries of origin and following the whole migrant journey.

Public information campaigns, tighter visa regimes, greater co-operation with transit countries, more sophisticated border security, embarcation controls, enhanced enforcement measures and a suite of return and resolution initiatives – all will be needed if the scale of irregularity is to be reduced.

Scale on its own is an issue, as the irregular population almost certainly runs into the hundreds of thousands. However, perhaps more important, in our view, is the impact that widespread irregularity has on the public's tolerance of immigration. This country needs migrants and migrants make an important contribution, but it is clear that the public will be persuaded of that only if the government can demonstrate that it can keep control of who comes and who goes.

It is often the case, as many campaigners argue, that irregulars are not doing much or any harm, as well as making an economic contribution. In our extensive research, we found individual irregular immigrants to be generally hard-working, decent, nice people. Their dreams and aspirations of a better life are perfectly laudable. But that is not the point. There is a system of rules, and they are breaking them. If this is allowed to persist, the integrity of the immigration system is badly damaged – and with it public confidence in migration in general.

Flexible friends

Some on the progressive wing of the migration debate have favoured the idea of a mass regularisation programme – or amnesty – arguing that most irregulars are innocent victims of the injustices and inefficiencies of the immigration system. There is a lot in this claim and, indeed, IPPR in the past has supported it. But in this report, we come out against the idea.

Again the reasons are as much about political realism as they are about the merits or otherwise of amnesties (in truth, the pros and cons are pretty finely balanced). The most recent survey data suggests that fewer than one in four of the public backs regularisation and mainstream political support for it has evaporated since the issue played so badly for the Liberal Democrats in the 2010 general election.

Better in our mind is to increase the flexibility and generosity of the current system – which, despite its harsh rhetoric (see for example Damian Green's response to the report in the Guardian), actually already provides opportunities for "quiet" regularisation. We would favour extending and embedding these measures so that special cases, such as stateless people or those facing obvious danger on return, could be subject to "status resolution", at least temporarily.

We also argue that the many thousands of minor infringers (short-term overstayers, for instance) should be offered the opportunity of "recompliance", taking them out of irregularity.

At the same time, we think migrant-supporting organisations need to recognise that return will often be the only option for an irregular immigrant, and they can best serve the welfare of their clients if they work with the authorities to make the return process as painless and supportive as possible.

At present, it has become something of a badge of honour among some organisations to fight return in almost every instance – though it is interesting that since our report went to press one of the leading refugee charities, Refugee Action, has taken over the voluntary return schemes previously administered by the International Organisation for Migration. This is very positive step.

Eyes on the endgame

Meanwhile, this government needs to learn from the last that acting smart and playing it long is a better approach than acting tough and chasing quick wins.

Our evidence suggests that the "hostile environment" strategy of making life more difficult for irregulars and their employers, as well as increasing raids and crackdowns, is certainly having an impact on the lives of irregulars – but it isn't delivering the desired endgame of more return.

Figures in our report show that the level of return doubled between 1997 and 2002, but since then has plateaued at around the 60,000-65,000 per annum mark. If this number is to increase, then a greater range of actions, involving a great number of actors (and yes, greater investment) will be needed.

For this to happen, the government needs to lead the way in taking a more co-operative, less combative approach on the issue, reaching out to those who work in the field and enlisting them in the process of increasing the numbers who return.

It will also need to consider one other thing that is politically very difficult. Irregular immigrants are able to survive in this country because there is work for them do. Most of it is at the bottom end of the labour market.

If irregular immigration is to be squeezed out of the system, but the "pull factor" or demand side that drives it persists, ministers will have to face up to the need, over time, for some legal routes for low-skilled and no-skilled immigration from outside the EU to be opened up.

Tim Finch is director of communications at IPPR.

Tim Finch is director of communications for IPPR

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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.