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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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.