The trouble with the immigration debate

‘Immigration cut by a third.’ This was the message that proudly dropped into the inboxes of Conservative members the week before last as Home Secretary, Theresa May, publicised her department’s achievements.

It coincided with my office dealing with a particularly depressing immigration case. Last September, a constituent brought her new, non-EU national husband to the UK on a spousal visa. Within months, he had acquired a six month prison sentence for attempting to strangle his British bride to death. In the short time he has been here, this man has resided in a secure hospital and prison, and been in near constant contact with the courts, police, immigration officers and mental health assessors. The ongoing cost to the taxpayer has been considerable.

The moment the Home Office revoked his visa, he exercised the right to appeal. Predictably, an immigration judge granted him bail under Article 8 – the right to respect for one’s private life. We were all astonished. If attempted murder is not grounds for immediate deportation, what is?

That same week, the House of Commons debated the student visa system. Colleague after colleague raised concerns that the government is jeopardising our world-beating, highly lucrative education system through its approach. There is no cap on international student numbers, but the government’s explicit objective has been to reduce student numbers as a means of bringing net migration to under 100 000 by the next election.

These twin snapshots of our approach to immigration are sadly replicated each week in my postbag. Time and again, I witness high level students and workers encountering enormous difficulties remaining in the UK. Similarly, I am told frequently in conversation with globally competitive universities and business people of their troubles securing entry for these groups. Yet it seems to be near impossible – or at least incredibly lengthy and costly – to deport those who do not play by the rules.

What I have long warned has come to pass – that any government seeking rapidly to reduce headline figures of immigration would opt for the easiest but most economically damaging route. Since the government has precious few tools at its disposal to stem the tide of EU nationals, refugees and asylum seekers (protected by human rights legislation), non-EU nationals playing by the rules were always going to bear the brunt of the new policy. Now we have a cap on the number of highly skilled individuals wishing to work here and a clamp down on student visas.

Britain’s world-beating education sector draws fee-paying students from across the globe, many of whom go back to their home nations as tremendous ambassadors for the UK for decades to come as they build wealth in their homelands. Think on this example – a 2011 report by the Home Affairs Select Committee suggested that 27 contemporary foreign heads of state were educated in the UK. Our universities have hitherto been exceptionally good at tapping that market – 9.9% market share in 2009, with export earnings of £7.9 billion. The overall value of international students to London and the UK, by the government’s own figures, is believed to exceed £20bn. There is huge potential for that to grow.

The UKBA advises that it remains open to those with the right qualifications studying in the UK, with no annual limit on numbers. Those who secure a graduate job paying £20 000 p.a. or more can stay, again without limit on numbers. Their focus, the organisation insists, is on the least compliant education sectors, not elite universities. All perfectly reasonable.

Meetings I have had with two elite universities in my cosmopolitan central London constituency, however, suggest the reality is less rosy. At one, the number of applications for post-graduate taught programmes from Indian and Pakistani students is down by 14% and 11% respectively since future employment prospects are a key motivator in these markets. The other is facing recruitment difficulties in disciplines such as accounting, economics, finance, management and law and finding it increasingly difficult to obtain transfers for high level researchers in order to maintain academic staff of the highest international repute. Prospective overseas staff now perceive that it is difficult to get a visa for the UK and prefer to move to the US and Australia instead. Other complaints surround the extortionate visa fees and enormous forms that need to be completed that compare unfavourably with our Western competitors. Restrictions over access for affluent and job-creating Chinese and Indian businessmen and tourists, meanwhile, are well documented.

The problem with the immigration debate is that it has long been stifled by a lack of candour. In truth, the movement of international business people, students and academics is not the nub of the issue for most Britons. Although few support employers choosing an international worker over a similarly skilled Briton, or welcome with open arms each and every person wanting to make a new life here, equally most accept that flexibility in a country’s immigration system is now part and parcel of being a signed-up member of the global economy.
Instead, worries about immigration broadly stem from a sense of rapid change to our communities alongside a feeling of impotence, a loss of control, over our ability to deport undesirables. The poster boy for the latter group is Abu Qatada but lesser examples can be seen in MPs’ postbags each and every week. I have lost count of the number of correspondents who have been told they have no right to remain and will be deported, only for them to pop up years later, having lodged a new application for leave on fresh grounds. Similarly, it is not the presence of Chinese students that constituents complain to me about. It is the large number of Roma gypsies camping at Marble Arch, sleeping in doorways or aggressively begging around Paddington station.

It would be wrong not to acknowledge the excellent progress the government has made in clamping down on bogus colleges, sham marriages and fake students. It is also striving to address some of the ‘pull factors’ that have hitherto made the UK such an attractive destination in terms of benefits and health care.
However we should be wary of the notion that the imposition of a cap and a broader clampdown means ‘job done’ on immigration. It will only lead to further cynicism by failing to address the true source of Britons’ unease. In the meantime, our globally-competitive universities and businesses are being undermined by a fresh wave of bureaucracy, enticing prospective contributors to the British economy to look elsewhere to study or work. At a time when economic growth remains elusive, we can ill afford to squeeze one of the few sectors ripe for expansion.