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Future of Immigration Policy

This speech sets out the way in which an effective system to control immigration can be established. It was given at the annual conference of the Immigration Services Tribunal on December 15th 2006.


Effective Immigration Policy for the Future

Rt Hon Charles Clarke MP, speaking at the Annual Conference of the Immigration Services Tribunal at 10.00am on Friday, December 15th 2006.

My argument today is that migration is a positive thing for the UK. We cannot simply jettison the concept of mutli-culturalism, close down our borders and stick our fingers in our ears hoping it will all go away. However we have to manage the process of migration far better than we do at the moment and to seek wider public understanding of the fact that the challenges we face in managing immigration are different to those we face in managing asylum.

I go on to suggest that the whole process of dealing with migration should not be seen as a matter for government alone, somehow thought to be working against the rest of society, but should be seen as a partnership between government, commerce, educational institutions and the communities that newly arrived migrants live in. The other countries of the European Union countries share the problems that we do, in some cases in far more difficult circumstances, and so it is also important to make sure we develop solutions across Europe, with the intention of throwing a protective shield around the whole of the European Union rather than simply trying to pull up the drawbridge at Dover.

And I argue that this whole process of change will take time, but needs to be handled carefully and methodically and not by hasty and abrupt responses to immediate media and political pressures.

Most countries now have to deal with the modern reality of high levels of migration. In any country the impact can be either positive or negative.

The migrations have happened for obvious reasons. Just as over 600 years ago Dick Whittington sought wealth by travelling from Gloucester to a London which was populated largely by immigrants, the modern citizen of the world travels to Europe or the United States with the expectation of being able to make his fortune here and to experience our freedoms.

And of course travelling round the world is easier than ever before. It is now routine for young men and women to move between countries and continents as they pursue their education and their careers. The worldwide media brings into every home awareness of how others live across the planet. This can easily stimulate a desire to move in the belief that the grass will be greener elsewhere.

This is not new. I remember 35 years ago teaching a course on migration on the basis of Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel "The Jungle", which powerfully described the impact of migration from Europe to the meat-packing industry in Chicago. Substantial international movements of people have happened for centuries. In its most obscene illustration, just this year we celebrate the bicentenary of the end of the Slave Trade.

The Statue of Liberty remains a powerful symbol of the fact that some countries, notably the United States of America and Australia, have been built on the basis of such migration. Those countries are the stronger for it and indeed that may be a source of future strength in a highly competitive and ageing world.

But the scale of modern migration is new. It reaches into every part of the world and every part of our lives. It changes patterns of work and education, the need for housing and public services, and it physically transforms communities. In every generation parts of all our great cities have played host to a newly arrived community. But if settlement is not secure, uncontrolled migration can lead to rootlessness and so to various forms of criminality.

And in our times, throughout Europe, there should be little doubt that migration provokes fear. This has been familiar throughout history. It is fear of the unknown which some can seek to mould into the kind of hatred and conflict which some ultra-right political parties seek to foment, and from which they have in some cases made political gains.

However the reality is that most analysts believe that the overall impact of migration upon our own country is economically beneficial. Indeed I saw last week that the Chancellor's predictions for continued strong growth were based to some extent upon predictions of continuing migration to this country.

In addition to the economic case, I would argue that our society has benefited from migration in a wide range of other ways, from broadening our horizons and economic entrepreneurship to literature, music, fashion and cuisine. Across the world this country has rightly been seen as relatively good at adapting to migration, for example from the Commonwealth in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Enoch Powell's rhetoric about "rivers of blood" was striking not because it was central to national life but because it was so marginal.

So I think that it should surprise us that current migration to the UK provokes the level of concern which it patently does. Our national values are strong and resilient. Our national life has successfully adapted to a series of migrations over centuries. So we have to ask ourselves why the levels of concern about migration today are as great as they undoubtedly are.

Once expressed, though, the answer is clear. For the overwhelming majority of people the issue is not migration itself but the sense that levels of migration are out of control, that the criteria for moving to this country are not properly operated, and so that communities are unable properly to prepare themselves for the changes which come upon them.

And there are very graphic examples, such as appalling crimes committed by people who shouldn't even be in the country, which reinforce uncertainty, nervousness and fear and so then generate understandable calls for order.

I strongly believe that the answer to such concerns is not to turn back the clock and try and put the genie of migration back into its bottle. We should not try and pretend that we could create a world with no migration and nor should we erect ever higher barriers between different communities in this country.

Nor is the answer to engage in high political theatre about the impact of migration, in a performance which can very easily be driven principally by the ambition for political advantage in an often distracting media spotlight. There were elements of this during the last General Election campaign, and it still recurs. Decisions about migration should be taken for good and solid reasons of policy and practice, and not to appease some particular media storm, however resonant.

The most effective approach will be to establish a good regime for control of migration, to operate it efficiently and to police it properly in a straightforward manner. This will benefit both the United Kingdom and the countries from which migration comes.

In February 2005 I published the White Paper, "Controlling our borders: making migration work for Britain". This still lays the basis for an effective system and it acknowledged serious weaknesses in the immigration control system, which had been increased by greater volumes of cases.

High quality administration of legal migration is central to all policy in this area. People wish quite reasonably and legitimately to migrate to this country to work or to study and the country benefits directly from those decisions. In principle the integrity of those requests to come to this country are easy to check. In most cases an employer, university or college has to testify that they want a specified individual to work for them or to attend their college for a specified course.

That is why we need to build practical partnerships between government, employers and colleges to share responsibility for the operation and enforcement of the migration contract. This has not been the case in the past but since employers and colleges benefit directly from migration they should share responsibility for the system of migration control.

The new points-based system should be a great improvement. It will increasingly make it possible for interviews, assessments and decisions to happen before the potential migrant travels to Britain. I hope that an increasingly large part of this work will be able to be sub-contracted directly to employers and universities, to create a partnership which will lead to more efficient operation of the migration system, including simpler mechanisms for updating the status of any migrant as their situation changes.

And the contract between the migrating individual and the employer or college has to be enforced. There have been many difficulties here and we need to create a system of enforcement which is not only a matter for the government alone, but for employers and universities too. When the course ends or the employment finishes, the migrant should honour their contract and return to their country of origin. The employer or university should consider it their duty to encourage and assist the return.

In the same way partnership should be our watchword in relation to families and communities. There is a myriad of social, business, cultural and family relationships between communities in towns and cities up and down this country and the regions and countries from which those communities originate. When it comes to seeking a visa for a family wedding, for example, this network of relationships can be thought to be a clever device to avoid proper immigration control, and so relations are soured.

This relationship should be on a different footing and should be based upon strong and constructive relations between minority ethnic communities, the wider population and local government. For example applications for visitors and tourist visas could be channelled and expedited through local community organisations, on the basis that breaches will be punished, for example through the use of bonds. Such a relationship could also be extended to help longer-term migratory decisions such as those which unite families.

So I argue that we need decisively to end the era of Government taking sole responsibility for operating and enforcing this country's arrangements for legal migration. Government should build partnerships with employers, colleges and universities, with ethnic minority community organisations and with local government to create a resilient system which is possessed more widely. By the end of 2008 the points-based system will be established and will make such partnerships far easier to organise.

The establishment of the e-borders system, also by the end of 2008, will be at least as important. People entering and leaving the country will be properly checked, on the basis of what will become increasingly prevalent biometric travel documents with greater reliability.

The establishment of a strong and modern basic system of migration control is fundamental to our national approach to immigration and asylum. It needs to work easily and effectively and is essential to rebuilding public confidence in our immigration control regime. The necessary resources need to be given priority

Together with the Identity Card system which is being developed following passage of the necessary legislation, better and more effective immigration control through the points-based system and strong partnerships with those who benefit directly from migration can create a strong basis for controlling migration comprehensively.

But even when a really transparent, fair and robust system of immigration control is in place, there will remain very hard judgements about asylum. Throughout our history Britain has held firm to its readiness to offer asylum to those fleeing tyranny, and this must continue to be a central feature of our society.

But the decisions on asylum are far more difficult than those which I have been describing about immigration. The individuals concerned will normally have already got to this country by some process, rather than being in their country of origin. They will rarely have any kind of sponsoring organisation, such as an employer. They will have very little means of support in this country. And, most difficult of all, they will have a range of personal histories across a spectrum from outright threat, such as torture, to more subtle forms of oppression. Very many will really have no sustainable case for claiming asylum at all but are simply inventing their history as a means of getting to this country. And of course, because of the situation in their countries of origin, it is often in practice very difficult to return them once they have arrived here.

These problems and complexities have to be addressed in two ways, first by ensuring that the Government gives proper and professional consideration to the best of its ability to the case made by any asylum-seeker; and second by insisting on the duty of the asylum-seeker to tell the truth and to help the government to make a genuine assessment.

The government already has a generally high standard of assessment of individual cases, which is supported by a range of professional advice and the rights of the asylum-seeker are protected by a range of legal safeguards. That said the government has to continue to raise standards. The higher the quality of each individual decision, the less need that there will be for appeals. The more quickly that a high quality decision is taken, the fewer complications will arise.

And of course, an underlying deep and pre-occupying problem, common to many European countries, is the backlog of outstanding cases where consideration has not properly taken place as it should have done, Every MP will have stories of constituents who have been waiting for years to get their decisions, during the course of which relationships have formed, children been born and whole new families emerge.

I am not one of those who believes that a general amnesty for people in this category, as in some other countries, would help the situation. It would undermine all those who had respected legal process in their whole approach and it would reinforce the idea that control of immigration had been abandoned as hopeless. The only course, which I believe the Home Office is following, is painstakingly to break down and reduce that backlog by targeting particular segments, for example by age of application or country of origin in order to put the whole system on a proper basis.

But I consider that a Government commitment to high-quality and rapid consideration of the cases put by asylum applicants puts a return obligation upon the asylum-seeker to behave with honesty and integrity. It is simply not acceptable to destroy identity documents, use false passports, lie about your personal history, refuse to say how you reached this country or any of the other devices which the people-smuggling gangs employ to make their money. Asylum-seekers who knowingly commit such acts should lose their right to asylum in this country and be returned as soon as possible to their country of origin. Recent legal changes have moved some way in this direction, but the principle of honesty and integrity in asylum applications should be reinforced at every turn.

I have tried to describe the approach to modernising this country's immigration and asylum control system. It will be clear that it is a long process which needs to be addressed steadily and systematically and not by sudden responses to immediate media and political pressures.

I believe that, on the basis of the 2005 White Paper, properly resourced, we can be optimistic that over the next 2 to 3 years we will have achieved a transformation of the system of immigration and asylum control. That in turn will give people in this country the confidence that our system of controlling those who come to this country is reliable and effective That in turn will lead to a welcome reduction in the political salience of migration and related concerns.

I conclude with a further general observation about our position within the European Union and the operation of the law.

We are members of the European Union. That means that we cannot address our migration policy issues outside the context of what is happening in the rest of Europe, and it would be shortsighted and inward-looking to do so even though the UK is not part of the Schengen group of countries.

This means working with our European partners to make better common use of security protections such as passport and travel data and identity cards.

It means strengthening the current external land, sea and air borders of the European Union, for example with extended joint operations, and more effective policies to prevent illegal immigration. The UK has particular expertise on contesting illegal immigration by air, and we should try to work particularly closely with our allies in that respect.

That means changing the external boundaries of the European Union in order to remove our defensive weaknesses. That is why I welcomed the decision to permit the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU from January 1st 2007, and believe that the logical consequence of this, for the UK and for other EU Member States, would have been from the outset to allow their nationals to work in the UK in the same way as those from other recently acceding EU member states.

And it means supporting European Union economic development initiatives to reduce the pressure to migrate from other countries, particularly in Africa, both generally and of the type recently proposed by Commissioner Frattini.

In short it means reversing the negative and anti-European attitude which has dominated debate on these matters. The European Union is not the problem in migration policy. Strong working with a stronger European Union is a major part of the solution.

And we will be stronger too if we work with our European Union colleagues on issues of the law. We all work under the European Convention of Human Rights, and we all face similar legal challenges as our Courts define the meaning of that convention in our own countries. There are fundamental questions, for example about the relationship between the rights of a citizen of the UK and the rights of someone who is not a citizen, but simply seeking asylum.

Many of the battles between the executive, in the form of the Home Office, and the judiciary are in fact arguments about the correct interpretation and application of human rights law in the complex areas I have discussed today. The case of the Afghanistani plane hi-jacking is a good case in point, but there are many other examples.

The effect of these very complicated legal arguments, which are often oversimplified in wider public explanation through the media, is seriously to undermine public confidence in the operation of our immigration control system. This manifests itself in criticism of the government of the day and of the judiciary but, more seriously, has the potential to inflame community tensions in a very negative way.

I therefore urge firstly that those parts of the judiciary most directly engaged in matters of migration law should regularly discuss with the Home Office and the Immigration and Nationality Directorate the best way of running operational matters so as to minimise the number of such legal conflicts.

Secondly I believe that the time has come for a frank discussion between the judiciary, legislature and executive about the best ways in which the proper human rights of all concerned can be protected within the context of an immigration control system which commands public confidence. The continued refusal of the Law Lords to engage in any discussion about these matters still seems to me completely unacceptable.

And third I continue to believe that action is needed by the European Union as a whole to change the climate on returns agreements with the countries of origin of asylum-seekers and illegal migrants. There are many countries where there is no real and objective reason why returns could not take place but the relevant governments, perhaps for understandable reasons, are not prepared to facilitate such returns. This country will be stronger arguing for such returns agreements if we do so with European Union allies and urge such cases to be processed expeditiously.

I am grateful for the chance of discussing these matters with the Immigration Services Tribunal here today. Your organisation already plays a significant role in creating the orderly, steady and reliable system of immigration control which this country needs in place of rhetoric and political controversy.


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