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.

GETTY
Show Hide image

North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.