Clegg's plan for immigration "bail bonds" is illiberal and unworkable

Forcing migrants to pay a "bond" of at least £1,000 will only further deter the migrants Britain needs.

The Liberal Democrats' liberal stance on immigration has long been viewed by Nick Clegg as one of the factors holding back support for his party. At the last general election, during the height of "Cleggmania", Lib Dem activists reported that voters' enthusiasm for the party waned once they learned of its policy of an amnesty for illegal immigrants. That pledge will not be repeated in 2015. This shift is one of several aimed at tackling the party's perceived softness on immigration. In his speech this morning on the subject, Clegg will declare his support for a system that is "zero-tolerant of abuse" and will argue that politicians neglected the public's concerns for too long. 

Speaking in his capacity as Deputy Prime Minister, he will also announce plans to introduce a bail-like system of "security bonds" aimed at preventing abuse of the visa system. Under the policy, migrants from "high risk countries" would be required to pay a deposit of at least £1,000 which would only be repaid once they leave the UK. Those who are found to have overstayed their visa will lose the bond. 

The proposal isn't a new one; it was examined (and rejected) by the last Labour government and was included in David Cameron's 2011 speech on immigration but Clegg's decision to take ownership of the policy is significant. One Tory source accuses him of "purloining Conservative ideas" after Theresa May floated it earlier this month. In his speech, Clegg will describe the bonds as a "powerful tool" to deal with individuals "who come over legitimately but then become illegal once they’re already here", adding that he asked the Home Office "to do some work on it, with a view to running a pilot before the end of the year."

But the policy raises far more questions than it answers. For instance, how will Clegg prevent it deterring the "legitimate" migrants he insists he wishes to attract? Many migrants already struggle to raise the funds required to move to UK, an additional payment of £1,000 risks putting them off entirely. A further problem is that it will alienate those migrant communities who have relatives visit from overseas to celebrate a family birth or a wedding. As Keith Vaz noted when the idea was proposed by Labour in 2007, "The real problem with the cultural issues that we have here is that people don't come singly for weddings. If you have, for example, a big wedding in Leicester, you are dealing with 20 people coming and therefore, if you have to put up a bond of £1,000 for each, it's a huge amount of money."

It was objections such as these that persuaded then-immigration minister Liam Byrne not to proceed with the policy. "What people said was look, if someone wants to flout the immigration rules they'll be more than happy to put up £1,000," he said. 

"On the other hand, people said for family weddings and so on you've got to sponsor all the people and people are just not going to have that kind of money." 

When the policy was first floated by Labour in 2000, Simon Hughes, then the Lib Dems' home affairs spokesman and now the party's deputy leader, said: "The idea of bonds as a surety for visitors from some countries was clearly discriminatory.

"When will the government learn that what we need are sensible policies, not tough-sounding but half-baked ideas?"

All of these criticisms remain as valid now as they were then. For largely political purposes, Clegg has embraced a policy that was long ago deemed unworkable. 

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg makes his keynote speech at the Liberal Democrats spring conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.