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.