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.

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After the leadership battle, immigration is Labour's new dividing line

Some MPs are making a progressive case for freedom of movement controls. 

After three brutal months of infighting, culminating in another sweeping victory for Jeremy Corbyn, the buzzword at the Labour party conference is unity. But while Corbyn’s opponents may have resigned themselves at least temporarily to their leader, a new fissure is opening up.

Considering it was sparked by Brexit, the Labour leadership contest included surprisingly little debate about freedom of movement. In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, Corbyn declared he was “not afraid to talk about immigration”.  Owen Smith, his rival, referred to the “progressive case against freedom of movement”. But ultimately, the contest embodied a clash between the will of the membership and the parliamentary Labour party. 

Now, though, the question can no longer be dodged. What position should Labour take on freedom of movement? And is it time for a fundamental shift on immigration?

Labour’s 2015 pledge to “control immigration” was widely derided by its own party activists – not least when it appeared on a gift shop mug. Apart from making a rather authoritarian present, one of the flaws in this promise was, at the time, that the only way of really controlling immigration would be to leave the EU. 

But an increasingly vocal group of MPs are arguing that everything has changed. Heavyweights from the Miliband era are now, from the back benches, trying to define limits to freedom of movement and immigration. Chief among them are Rachel Reeves and Chuka Umunna. 

Reeves makes her case from an economic perspective. She argues that freedom of movement from the EU has depressed wages (the cause and effect is disputed). At a Resolution Foundation event during Labour conference, she recalled visiting a factory in her constituency where workers complained the jobs went to foreigners. 

Umunna, on the other hand, argues unease with immigration has a cultural element as well. He has said that immigrants need to stop leading “parallel lives”. At the Resolution event, he declared of Brexit: “This isn’t all about economic equality – it is about identity politics.” Umunna's tough talk on integration may coincide with his bid to chair the Home Office select committee, but his observations about the underlying distrust of immigrants rings true. 

How Labour copes with freedom of movement depends on which view prevails. It is possible to imagine the party coming up with an answer to the freedom of movement question that involves Corbynite economic themes, such as protecting wages, labour rights and restrictions on agency recruitment. Lisa Nandy, another speaker at the Resolution event, rallied the audience with a story of workers on low wages standing “in solidarity side by side” with migrant workers. It would be a distinctly left-wing argument that critiques the Government’s tolerance of zero-hours contracts and other precarious employment practices. 

But if, as Umunna suggests, Brexit is also an articulation of a deeper anti-immigrant feeling, Labour is entering more dangerous territory. On a tactical level, it is hard to see how the party can beat the May Government when it comes to social conservatism. It undermines any attempt to broker a "soft Brexit", which many of Labour's members, who voted Remain, will want. 

And then there's the prospect of the party most closely associated with ethnic minorities condoning xenophobia. Labour activists point out that some of the Brexit backlash is plain old racism. Speaking at a Momentum rally during the leadership contest, Diane Abbott, the shadow health secretary and one of Corbyn’s closest allies, declared: "Anyone who tells you maybe you have to do something about these Eastern Europeans, it's not about skin colour, what we've seen since the Brexit vote gives lie to that. 

“If you give ground to anti-immigrant politics, it will sweep away all of us. And we cannot give ground to that stuff. You cannot as a Labour movement take a position that one part of the working class is a problem of another section of the working class."

More pragmatic MPs too, still remember the ill-fated immigration mug. They see the new “tough on immigration” line as an uneasy alliance between working-class MPs on the Labour right, and a group of middle-class metropolitans who have spotted a gap in the market and jumped on it. Should this second attempt, Labour MPs will have achieved nothing except alienating their activist base. 

Ultimately, the initiative lies with Corbyn. If he can set out a radical agenda for protecting workers’ rights, he may be able to bring the party with him. But if this fails to shift opinion polls, immigration could be the next issue to disunite the party.