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

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.