Illegal immigrants should be given a one-off amnesty allowing them to remain in Britain, in a “seismic” policy shift designed to improve relations between the Conservatives and ethnic minorities, a prominent Tory MP has said.
Nadhim Zahawi’s provocative call will put him at odds with the party’s leadership, which strongly opposes the move, although it has been advocated by the London Mayor, Boris Johnson. Opponents argue that offering an amnesty would make Britain a magnet for immigrants.
But Mr Zahawi, who is tipped as a future minister, insisted the step could boost the economy – and help repair the Tories’ tarnished reputation among minority voters. He said: “We shouldn’t be afraid to think outside of our comfort zone.” At the last election, the Tories picked up just 16 per cent of the black and Asian vote, while more than two-thirds supported Labour. “Our failure to appeal to ethnic minorities should send loud alarm bells ringing in Downing Street and Central Office,” Mr Zahawi said. “Unless we act now this electoral penalty will only get worse.”
The MP for Stratford-upon-Avon’s call came in an essay for a new think-tank, provisionally called Right Revival, to be launched next month, with the aim of finding ways of reaching out to sections of the electorate hostile to the Tories. Mr Zahawi welcomed moves by the party to open “genuine dialogue” but warned: “Some of the polling makes for such grim reading that you wonder if a more seismic shift in policy is needed to signal our good intentions.”
The Independent disclosed last year that David Cameron ordered a drive to build support among voters from immigrant backgrounds. He is pressing for more black and Asian people to be made “A-list” candidates and for the party to step up efforts to engage non-white communities. But Mr Zahawi said: “What’s clear is that, on their own, the A-list and photo-ops of cabinet ministers at their local temple or mosque are not enough. If we want to recreate the triumphs of the 1980s we must be Thatcher-like in our willingness to think brave and think big.”
Mr Zahawi suggested an amnesty for the estimated 570,000 illegal immigrants would have a dramatic impact on the party’s standing among minority voters. He said it would make financial sense as the vast hidden economy cheats the Treasury out of billions of pounds and undercuts the pay and conditions of low-income workers.
He said recipients should be given leave to remain rather than full citizenship, limiting their entitlement to benefits, and the move should be combined with an overhaul of border controls. “It’s only because we’ve been so robust on immigration in government we’re able to have this conversation with the electorate. We’ve earned the credibility to think outside the box,” he said.
Mr Zahawi, who co-founded the market research company YouGov, said he had commissioned polling which found ethnic-minority voters backed Tory policies on benefits, taxation and ring-fencing health spending and even reducing non-European immigration. But when respondents were asked which party was most in touch with their needs, just 6 per cent named the Conservatives, compared with 53 per cent who cited Labour.
“This suggests to me that the problem isn’t primarily Conservative policies. It’s far deeper than that, a gut feeling which says ‘these people aren’t on my side’,” Mr Zahawi said. He pointed out that well-known Republicans – whose defeat last year in the US presidential election was largely blamed on Mitt Romney’s weak appeal to black and Hispanic voters – supported a one-off amnesty.
In 2009, study by the London School of Economics an amnesty for long-term illegal immigrants could be worth £3bn to the economy. It also said migration would not increase because the UK has no land borders, except between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The campaign for an amnesty was led in the last Parliament by Citizens UK, the largest alliance of community groups in Britain.
Case study: ‘Our prayers have been answered’
Jarmar Ifkurbi*, 43, fled to the UK from the Democratic Republic of Congo more than a decade ago. He is married with three children aged 10, eight and four.
Since 2001 I have lived in Britain but am still not allowed to work and am waiting for my asylum application to be processed to see if we will granted leave to remain. Because I came here as an asylum-seeker, I’m not allowed to work or go abroad. We are part of the National Asylum Support Service and collectively receive around £206 a week. I am grateful for being allowed to be here. But not being able to work and contribute makes it difficult to live and develop. It’s an endless cycle of stress and uncertainty, and almost feels like I’m waiting to find out if my life is allowed to start.
“My wife and I have been very outspoken on the political events in our home country and I have no doubt that if I return to the Congo I will be killed. This predicament of waiting to hear what is in store for me causes massive uncertainty. The struggles have left me feeling extremely depressed. Each night we pray as a family for our situation to change.
“The idea of this amnesty is not just a good one: it’s a great idea – the thing I’ve waited for. Just hearing that it’s being considered in Parliament feels as though our prayers have been answered. This country is the mother of democracy: I am grateful for what it has done to help me and my family. An amnesty would be the ultimate chance that I have waited for, to finally give back.”
*His name has been changed