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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.

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

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