Immigration has become the dog pit of British politics: a place only the political rottweilers are willing to go. It is time for a party to drag the debate back to rational ground, where it can be based on facts not prejudice, by fairness, not vitriol. That is what the Liberal Democrats have sought to do by adopting a policy yesterday that sets out a comprehensive liberal approach to making migration work for Britain.
We know that the response of many people to immigration is fear. It could, therefore, be considered odd that the Liberal Democrats, with our long tradition of tolerance, should decide to go on the attack on immigration. It makes sense, though, because it is exactly the government's mix of populist gimmicks and administrative incompetence that has created the fear we want to tackle.
The foreign prisoners scandal last year did a massive amount to damage public confidence in the immigration system. Visa processing for visitors is abysmal in some consulates, with up to 40 per cent of refusals unfounded in some posts. The administration at our border checks is so bad that queues at Stansted and Heathrow have become a national joke.
Liberal Democrats have never argued for a free-for-all immigration system. Immigration is a process that needs to be managed – it should not occur in a policy vacuum. The question we need to ask ourselves is not whether to manage immigration but how to do it. I believe immigration can only be successful – and seen by the public as an opportunity rather than a threat – if three conditions are met.
First and foremost, the system must work. We must have rigorous border controls with entry and exit checks. We can only adopt liberal policies within Britain, if we first know who is coming in and out. The government's alternative of identity cards and endless intrusive biometric checking is both less liberal and less workable. We must also prioritise resources to track down and stop the people traffickers that cause misery to countless vulnerable women, children and refugees every year.
Second, we must plan for the effects of immigration on public services, housing and the economy. In particular, we need to focus on areas where population changes have been the fastest. At the moment there is an unacceptable three-year time lag between population changes in local areas and corresponding changes in the allocation of Government grants to local authorities. Such inefficient centralisation leads directly to greater public anxiety about immigration.
Finally, we must focus on integration alongside immigration. From tackling segregation in schools to increasing English language courses, we need to make it easier for people to come together in our communities. Most controversially, we need to do something to tackle the growing underclass of illegal immigrants who live and work in the UK but have no rights, no legal protections, and no access to services.
Even Government estimates suggest there are up to 600,000 people living here illegally – one per cent of the population – and neither they nor the Conservatives have any realistic plan to solve the problem. They simply claim, absurdly, that one day they'll get around to deporting them all.
Liberal Democrats would offer an earned route to citizenship for those who have been here the longest. We would offer them a route out of the twilight world of exploitation and illegality to which they are currently condemned. Irregular migrants who have been here many years would be able to apply for a two-year work permit, subject to proof that they have no criminal record and the ability to speak English or a commitment to learn. In recognition of the fact that they have been living illegally for so long, they would have to pay a charge though this could be waived for those who completed community service, which would in turn boost integration.
This is not a blanket amnesty. Experience from Spain and Belgium suggests that an unqualified amnesty can encourage illegal immigration and actually boost business for the people traffickers and criminal gangs we want to defeat.
A measured, selective amnesty, as the Liberal Democrats propose is anything but "soft" on illegal immigration. By allowing families who have been here for years to stay, and to work for proper wages, we will be able to focus our enforcement energies on the criminal gangs, the people traffickers, and the effective border controls we need. In short, the Liberal Democrats are setting out a new approach to immigration which seeks to replace fear with understanding, discrimination with integration and incompetence with efficiency.
The writer is Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary
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