Nick Clegg and the politics of border controls.

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August 10, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

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How can a proper immigration control system exist in his country that counts and checks the people coming in but doesn’t count and check the people leaving? How are we supposed to crack down on illegal immigration if someone can come in to the country, perhaps saying they are on a holiday or visiting a relative, but we have no idea if they have left. I was surprised to find out this week that the weakness in our border controls that were pointed out by Nick Clegg in the televised election debates in 2010 is still there, and glad that the a Lib Dems will commit to improving them in their next manifesto, which in the current electoral calculus, could mean it becomes government policy in 2015.

There are many interesting aspects to Clegg’s speech (which you can read here). It is worth remembering that the Lib Dems have always been a party that is more positively disposed to immigration than most, believing a fair immigration system to be consistent with human rights and also with what works for Britain’s prosperity. So, for instance at this year’s Spring conference a policy review called ‘Making Migration Work for Britain’ was passed. It contains some sensible provisions, such as allowing asylum seekers the right to work in the UK if a decision hasn’t been made on them within six months, and allowing overseas science and technology students to remain in the UK for three years after they graduate. It also repeats a more controversial aspect of the Lib Dems’ policy platform in 2010 which was to allow undocumented (illegal) immigrants who have been in the UK for 20 years and have no criminal record the chance to get permanent leave to remain in the country.

All of this was about putting clear water between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. Clegg points out that when the Coalition arrived in government the situation at the UK Border Agency was best described as in ‘disarray’. “No one could tell us the basics: who’s here? Who’s left? Where are the holes in the system? one could tell us the basics: who’s here? Who’s left? Where are the holes in the system?”. So it was difficult to know what to prioritise first. But the Conservatives had made up their mind, they would prioritise a ‘net migration target’ of tens of thousands not hundreds of thousands. Clegg told Cameron he would never deliver it and refused to allow it in the coalition agreement. In particular, he felt it was “based on a fallacy: if a million Brits leave and a million migrants come you get net migration of zero – does that mean you’ve done the job?”

But whilst the Conservatives have dropped that target, they still have in place an immigration “cap” on non-EU migrants, which is struggling to determine between migrants that the UK needs (e.g. health professionals, scientists) and ones that they don’t. This affects our prosperity.

Clegg points out the damage that illegal immigration does: “The crime. The black economy. The slave labour. The beds-in-sheds. No real winners except rogue employers and dodgy landlords”. He goes on to say that to tackle illegal immigration in a meaningful way the job must be completed of putting proper border checks in place.

The problem, as I said at the start, is with people overstaying having come over legitimately with a visa. Without border checks we don’t know who those people are as we don’t know if they have gone. Clegg wants to be able to identify them, restrict their access to benefits and services, and deport them. This sounds rather harsh, but illegal immigration does bring social issues. Over many years the Conservative and Labour governments have dismantled these checks, meaning that by 2010 only 57% of entry and exit points were covered by proper checks. By March 2013 it was still only 65% as it wasn’t a priority to improve them. Clegg says that he intervened and it is now 80%. The gaps can be filled by working with the ferry companies and Eurotunnel and the Lib Dems want to make it a priority.

Politically this is an interesting speech. The Lib Dems are trying to make themselves more trusted on immigration for those who think they are a soft touch. They are trying to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives having been in Coalition with them. But they are also possibly distancing themselves from the more left-wing voters (click here for more on that) which may be an acknowledgement by Clegg that their time in government means they have lost those voters anyway back to Labour. It is certainly an interesting issue.

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