On Tuesday, the Liberal Democrat conference passed a radical new immigration policy which will give us the policy tools to address this increasingly salient political issue.
Our party is refusing to be cowed into silence on immigration – instead we will vocally promote the benefits that immigration can bring, whilst arguing for the need for it to be sensibly managed. This requires a number of changes in the way the government works.
There is a clear need for our borders to be effectively controlled. Gordon Brown belatedly acknowledged the case for a fully integrated border force before the summer break – yet he failed to include police powers in the new force, raising the risk that it will be little more than a ‘border force lite’.
A rigorously policed border is surely preferable to the government’s strategy of imposing stringent controls on all of us through the intrusive use of ID cards.
The government must also address the administrative incompetence of the existing system which has led to erratic decisions, woeful delays in paperwork and inhumane outcomes as individuals are sent from pillar to post for months and sometimes years on end.
Equally, there is also a clear need to plan for the effects of large-scale immigration. The slow and centralised allocation of money to local authorities, and the inaccuracy of official statistics, have failed to keep up with the demands made on local services by immigration.
We must be more proactive in advocating integration, and ensuring immigrants can speak English is key to this. Government policy is all over the shop. Cutting public funding for English-language classes, when language barriers remain the biggest impediments to integration, is self-defeating. Immigrants that are able to speak English are both better able to stand up for themselves and to contribute more fully to community life.
Significantly, building on the pioneering work of the Stranger into Citizens campaign the Liberal Democrats are also proposing an earned route to citizenship for irregular migrants. We would set stringent criteria – this is not a blanket amnesty – namely that the applicant should have lived in the UK for many years; should have a clean criminal record; and should show a long-term commitment to the UK. The applicant would be subject to a public interest test and an English language and civics test, and would be required to pay a charge.
Deporting 600,000 people – as suggested by both the Tories and Labour – at vast expense is simply not a practical option. Academic studies show the cost of each deportation to average £11,000. Bringing such people in from the twilight world of exploitation and oppression and into our society is both humane and in our national interest.
We live in an age in which 191 million people live outside the country in which they were born. British politics needs a political party to offer serious and realistic proposals to deal with this global world. The Liberal Democrats are that party.