With his suggestion that some visitors to the UK should be required to post a “security bond” to guarantee their departure, Nick Clegg has reopened two debates. The first is about whether and how the Government will be able to meet its target for reducing migration, to which Mr Clegg, as Deputy Prime Minister, is a party. The second is about the concept of a bond, which revives an idea that was mooted, and rejected, by the last government for British residents wanting to bring in relatives from outside the European Union.
On the first, much has been made of the apparent conflict between Mr Clegg’s proposal and comments coincidentally published on the same day by his fellow Liberal Democrat, Vince Cable, in Parliament’s House magazine. In spirit, they would appear to be at odds. Mr Clegg was calling for new restrictions, whereas Mr Cable was calling for easier access to visas and more flexibility. In practice, however, the difference is far less than it might appear.
In questioning the feasibility, even the desirability, of the Government’s target for migration, Mr Cable was speaking as Business Secretary and responding to the concerns of British employers who complain of a skills shortage. The extent to which Mr Cable appears to have bought into the agenda of certain business interests can be challenged; plentiful migrant labour has allowed British companies to neglect the training of their own workforce. And even Labour, in the person of the shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, now admits that the Government’s job visa “cap” has not had the deleterious effect business feared.
But the people Mr Cable has in mind – skilled individuals with firm offers of employment – are unlikely to be the same people as those Mr Clegg has in his sights: those who enter the UK legally, as short-term visitors or students, and then, for whatever reason, fail to leave. Nor is it entirely clear what effect, if any, requiring certain non-EU visitors to post a bond would have on the migration figures. Once their visas have expired, these individuals are in the country illegally. They are not counted.
So the prime purpose of a bond system would not be to make it easier to meet the migration target, but to close off an illegal route. Given that the UK Border Agency and the Home Office between them have found it so difficult to track down those who overstay their visas, let alone act when they find them, it is not unreasonable for the Government to be looking for a more effective solution.
Bonds should not be ruled out. They should, however, be introduced only after very careful consideration. The onus must be on the Government to show that the number of those overstaying their visas is substantial. Tighter rules for students, in particular, which have already resulted in a big fall in the number of those from outside the EU coming to take non-university courses, may be at least as effective a way of tackling the problem, as may be the new rules that prevent non-EU graduates from staying on without a job. Simplest of all might be the reintroduction of exit controls.
If bonds are to be tried, particular care must be taken to ensure that the system is fair and seen to be so. Ideally, it should apply to everyone who requires a visa to enter the UK – or to none. If citizens of only “high-risk” countries are singled out, then the Government must show, with chapter and verse, that these passport-holders are disproportionately likely to overstay. Outside Britain, there is a widespread perception of the UK visa system as incompetent at best and racist at worst. The danger is that a bond system, applied selectively, would reinforce that view.