Immigration laws will take tough action, but not on the real problem
Another week, another Conservative split on Europe. On Wednesday, half the Parliamentary Conservative Party said they regretted their own Government’s Queen’s Speech after it did not promise to bring forward legislation guaranteeing a referendum on Britain’s EU membership.
Those who backed the amendment have been emboldened by UKIP’s local election triumph. Take a closer look at the figures, though, and you will see that Euroscepticism was not the driving force behind it. Forget saving the Pound. Put to one side sluggish economic growth. UKIP’s 147 new councillors were swept into office on the back of fears about immigration.
No surprise then that tough new immigration rules topped the Bills in last week’s Queen’s Speech. However, whilst the Government’s plans to tighten immigration rules are welcome, many of them completely miss the point.
It is not just UKIP supporters who are worried about immigration. Three in five voters now rank immigration as one of the three most serious issues facing Britain. An overwhelming majority want it cut.
So what does the Government plan to do?
First, it will be harder for foreign criminals to claim that their “right to a family life” means they should not be deported. Only last week, a Zimbabwean convicted for his role in the 2011 summer riots escaped deportation because he has a girlfriend here. Such decisions make a mockery of British justice and must be stopped. Second, illegal immigrants will no longer be able to get driving licenses. I am frankly amazed that they ever could. The plan to impose larger fines on employers who hire illegal workers also sends out the right message.
Less well thought-out are new rules to make landlords responsible for checking their tenants are living here legally. Call me old-fashioned, but I thought that was the UK Border Agency’s job? UKBA’s failure should not become landlords’ burden. Broadly speaking, though, the Government is stepping in the right direction on illegal immigration.
The problem is that cracking down on illegal immigrants misses the elephant in the room; the imminent – and totally legal – arrival of new migrants from Eastern Europe. It is this prospect that formed the cornerstone of UKIP’s anti-immigration message, and the part that really registered with voters.
From January 1st next year, travel restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian workers will be lifted – and many will head for the UK. Those who arrive on these shores will do so legitimately under the EU’s freedom of movement laws.
Do you remember being told in 2005 that only 13,000 Polish workers would come to Britain each year? Many voters do. Just two years later, more than a quarter of a million had arrived. Tackling illegal immigration is welcome, but to allay voters’ fears, the Government must show what it plans to do if hundreds of thousands of new migrants enter Britain in a matter of months.
Getting migrants to contribute to the cost of their NHS care, another measure announced in the Queen’s Speech, will not address this. Of course we should control the cost of healthcare provided to foreign nationals. It is, after all, the National Health Service, not a global health service. However, this policy will have almost no impact on the numbers coming to Britain. Bulgarians and Romanians will not haul themselves across Europe because they have heard good things about our hospital food. They will come to Britain because the average wage in their countries is one-third of the minimum wage here.
New restrictions on the benefits immigrants can receive are another crowd-pleaser. Migrants should not be able to claim out of work benefits indefinitely, nor claim Jobseeker’s Allowance if they are not looking for work. Again, though, this will not deter the vast majority of Eastern European migrants who will come to Britain to work.
So what should the Government do instead?
The problem with EU immigration, of course, is that there is little Ministers can do. That the Queen’s Speech got tough on illegal immigration, but offered no barriers to Eastern European workers, is not a sign of the Government’s lack of ambition, but of the limits of its power.
We cannot stop this next wave of immigration because “the free movement of peoples” is a fundamental tenet of European law. It is a good idea in principle, but it cannot work when one country has an average income five times that of another one. This is obvious, but is not a problem that EU Commissioners or officials will solve.
The only way Britain can really manage EU immigration is by radically altering its relationship with the European Union to reclaim control over this most fundamental of issues. With European elections just over a year away, I suspect that is a conclusion Mr Farage will be only too keen to point out.