The Immigration Bill is a triumph of symbolism over substance

The coalition's reductive focus on numbers and ever-tighter restrictions will not create the fair and effective migration system that it says it wants.

After months of cross-departmental wrangling, the government has finally presented its long-anticipated Immigration Bill to Parliament. According to immigration minister Mark Harper, the Bill has been designed to "stop migrants using public services to which they are not entitled, reduce the pull factors which encourage people to come to the UK and make it easier to remove people who should not be here", and the legislation contains a wide-ranging set of proposals to beef up the enforcement powers of immigration officials and regulate the access that migrants have to housing, NHS treatment and banking, amongst other services. 

The devil of all this will most certainly be in the detail. While the bill and its explanatory notes stretch to nearly 175 pages, it remains light on the specifics of how these measures will be implemented.  The Home Office has promised further details of secondary legislation in coming weeks, yet is already being challenged by experts who are sceptical that the proposals will have their desired impact. For instance, increasing the penalties for landlords who do not conduct proper checks on tenants is unlikely to deter those who are already unscrupulous in their practices, and may make those who are law-abiding more reluctant to rent to people who are perfectly entitled to live in the UK but who may have complex immigration situations. 

Yet Theresa May and her colleagues are unlikely to be too concerned about these criticisms at this point. Essentially, this Immigration Bill is a statement of intent and a triumph of symbolism over substance, designed to send a message that the government is serious about creating a hostile environment for those whose legal right to live and work in the UK is in question. It is also an explicit response to public perceptions that the UK’s welfare system is a magnet for migrants coming to access more generous benefits than they would receive at home, even though there is very little hard evidence of this and, in fact, plenty to suggest that most migrants put more into the system than they get out.

This week's statements will resonate with those who are worried that the UK’s current immigration system is unfair and unfit for purpose.  Their concerns are not misplaced, and the aims of reducing irregular immigration and preventing abuse of the system are legitimate and important policy goals. But the coalition government’s framing of these problems as an enforcement issue that can be dealt with simply by tightening existing restrictions will not create the fair and effective migration system that it says it wants. Rather, it seems calculated to reduce the appeal of the UK as a destination for all migrants, playing into their overarching commitment to reduce net migration to the 'tens of thousands' before the next election.

Given persistently high levels of public and political concern about migration, it is crucial that any further reforms to the UK’s immigration are principled, effective and capable of securing public consent. It is reasonable and indeed right to expect immigrants to make a substantial contribution and play by the rules, but in return, those who do should expect to be treated fairly and not all lumped together as scroungers intent on coming to the UK as 'benefit tourists', an image which does not represent the majority of migrants who come to the UK prepared to put in as much as they get out.

As it stands, the new Immigration Bill will do little to shift the UK’s migration policy or national conversation in this direction. If its proposals prove to be unworkable or unenforceable, it will only reinforce the impression of government incompetence in this area, and increase public distrust of all migrants. It is well past time to move away from a reductive focus on numbers and ever-tighter restrictions, and start a more constructive discussion about how to make migration policies and practices work more fairly and effectively for all.

Alex Glennie is a Senior Research Fellow at IPPR

Home Secretary Theresa May speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this month.

Alex Glennie is a Senior Research Fellow at IPPR

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.