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  1. The Staggers
24 July 2023

Is immigration policy going anywhere?

While the Tories flit between relaxing visa restrictions and migrant barges, no one is pleased.

By George Fitzmaurice

With parliament now in recess, it’s worth looking at how the government’s immigration policy stands at the end of term. Last Monday (16 July) the Home Office released a “Statement of Changes to Immigration Rules” which relaxed visa restrictions for jobs experiencing shortage issues, such as bricklayers and carpenters. This comes just months after the Home Office announced tighter restrictions on student visas to “substantially cut net migration” by stopping international students from bringing their family or using their studies as a “backdoor” route to working in the UK. Though conflicted, these policies seem in line with the thinking of Jeremy Hunt, Chancellor of the Exchequer, who reinforced the UK’s need to be “sensible and pragmatic” about immigration.

The Chancellor maintains that the government is “completely united” on immigration, though illegal immigration has been a point of greater contention in the Conservative Party. The Home Secretary Suella Braverman personally sponsored the Illegal Migration Bill, which was passed last Monday, and has described the arrival of migrant boats an “invasion on our southern coast”. The minister for immigration, Robert Jenrick, also sparked outrage earlier this month when he ordered cartoon murals in an asylum centre for unaccompanied children to be painted over. The decision, which “horrified” staff members at the centre, was defended by Jenrick as part of the need to make the area a “law enforcement environment” and “not a welcome centre”. It’s possible that Sunak is being lenient on these more aggressive demonstrations of anti-immigration sentiment because it allows him to satisfy the pragmatists of the party, such as Hunt. 

On an even more dystopian note, the UK’s new accommodation for asylum seekers, the Bibby Stockholm, docked itself at Portland port, Dorset on 18 July. Yes, you read that right – the Tories’ answer to illegal immigration is an actual barge. While the government has described it as a practical solution, providing “basic and functional accommodation” to male asylum seekers, the chair of Portland town council, Jim Draper, described the initiative as “hastily thought out, highly impractical and of dubious morality”. Locals are protesting fiercely, both about the existence of the barge and its location in the port of the island. The company that owns the vessel, Bibby Line, also has uncomfortable connections with the Atlantic slave trade.

Labour hasn’t been particularly vocal on the issue, though the shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper didn’t rule out Labour continuing to use the barge if it was in power. Starmer himself continues to shift rightwards, of which his defence of the two-child benefit cap was only the most recent instance. He has been arguing for “many more returns agreements” be made with countries to combat the “ever-growing problem” of immigration. While aspects of current immigration policy might please Starmer, it’s just as likely he’ll be critical about its lack of clarity. 

In short, Tory immigration policy doesn’t seem to be pleasing anyone. The right of the party, along with the opposition, will continue to say that the government isn’t delivering enough of a change, and the Chancellor will continue to push for cheap immigrant labour. Much of the public, one can only assume, will continue to look on in shock and horror.

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[See also: Rishi Sunak should take on the immigration fantasists]

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