A core part of selling the Coalition to Conservative backbenchers was the commitment that reducing immigration would remain a major policy priority. Popular with the electorate, but not with the Liberal Democrats, the pledge to cap immigration to under 100,000 a year became the centre piece of Government policy in this area. Whilst progress has been made, the net migration figure dropped to 163,000 from 247,000 a year earlier, there is still work to be done to convince the electorate that immigration is falling.
The Government has enjoyed a number of early successes, including establishing the annual limit for non-EU migrants, and enforcing the transitional immigration controls for immigration from new EU members. Another success has been minimising the abuses of the student visa system, which the Government believes has led to a 52,000 net reduction in student applications in 2012. However, concerns have been raised by businesses, universities and members of the Government that by restricting the passage of graduates and highly skilled workers into the country, you risk restricting the talent pool from which businesses can employ. Balancing the two politically important priorities of cutting immigration and driving growth will be one the major political challenges facing the Coalition over the next two years.
Despite some success, delivering other pledges has proved to be much more difficult. For instance, the recent decision to break up the UK Border Agency (UKBA) reflects the difficulty that the Government has had in speeding up the asylum process, and dealing with the backlog of existing applicants. A recent Home Affairs Select Committee report suggested that 147,000 cases remain unresolved. Other pledges are also yet to be completed: the specific UK Border Force, as part of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, has not yet materialised and with the details for exit checks for new migrants still being deliberated, there is work to be done in this area as well. The 2013 Queen’s Speech announced an Immigration Bill to address some of these problems, as well as problems posed by a potential influx of Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants in 2014.
Particularly for the Conservatives, who face a growing challenge for votes from UKIP, fulfilling these pledges will be a core part of their offering at the 2015 election. The closer we get to 2015, the more pressure there will be on the Home Secretary to ensure that the Conservative Party has a demonstrable record of cutting immigration into the UK.
Progress against the Coalition Agreement
Pledge: We will introduce an annual limit on the number of non-EU economic migrants admitted into the UK to live and work. We will consider jointly the mechanism for implementing the limit.
Status: Done – The Government has introduced an annual limit whereby employers are only able to bring 20,700 tier two migrants from outside the EU to work in skilled professions, with a further 1,000 made available for candidates of ‘exceptional talent’. This figure was frozen after pressure from businesses that they were being denied access to the right employees. However, given the Government’s overall commitment to reducing net migration to below 100,000 a year, this figure may yet have to be revised.
Pledge: We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes.
Status: In progress – Under changes introduced by the Coalition Government, families with children are no longer detained in immigration removal centres, although they may be held for up to a week in secure ‘pre-departure accommodation’ before being removed from the country. Whilst it is true to claim that the Coalition has ended child detention as it existed under the Labour Government, critics argue that in reality a form of child detention still remains.
Pledge: We will create a dedicated Border Police Force, as part of a refocused Serious Organised Crime Agency, to enhance national security, improve immigration controls and crack down on the trafficking of people, weapons and drugs. We will work with police forces to strengthen arrangements to deal with serious crime and other cross-boundary policing challenges, and extend collaboration between forces to deliver better value for money.
Status: In progress – Whilst the Government has now published their plans for the new National Crime Agency (NCA) within which the Border Policing Command will sit, this has not yet been established. The Government is currently taking the legislation through Parliament to complete the set up of the NCA.
Pledge: We support E-borders and will reintroduce exit checks.
Status: In progress – Originally proposed by the last Government, the new E-borders IT system is now live. The system has been criticised for its slow introduction as it currently only screens around 65 per cent of passenger movements into and out of the UK and excludes screening flights from within the EU and at ports and railway stations. The Government plans to extend the system to cover these areas by 2015. Exit checks have not yet been introduced but the Government remains committed to introducing these by 2015.
Pledge: We will apply transitional controls as a matter of course in the future for all new EU Member States.
Status: Done – Transitional controls were applied to membership of Bulgaria and Romania and are now due to finish at the end of 2013. In an interview on the Andrew Marr show the Home Secretary, Theresa May, highlighted that: “There are no further transitional controls we can put on. The transitional controls end in December 2013”. In October 2012, the Home Office issued a report called ‘Statement of intent: accession of Croatia to the European Union: transitional restrictions on labour market access’ which outlines the transitional restrictions that will be put in place when Croatia joins the European Union in July 2013.
Pledge: We will introduce new measures to minimise abuse of the immigration system, for example via student routes, and will tackle human trafficking as a priority.
Status: Done – The Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced a series of measures to tighten the rules for student visa applications, which came into place in April 2013. This follows a series of pilots where applicants who were considered as ‘high risk’ were interviewed to assess their intentions. The Government states that these measures have already led to a 52,000 net reduction in student applications in 2012. On human trafficking, the Government introduced a strategy in 2011 and conducted a review of human trafficking legislation in June 2012. They have also implemented the EU Directive on human trafficking, with legislation brought forward in the Protection of Freedoms Act.
Pledge: We will explore new ways to improve the current asylum system to speed up the processing of applications.
Status: In progress – In the Mid-Term Review the Government states that they have worked their way through legacy asylum cases (cases submitted before 2007) more quickly and that they have taken steps to speed up the system. However, this pledge cannot be considered to be complete as 147,000 cases remain unresolved. The Chief Inspector of Immigration, John Vine, found that the operation to deal with legacy and other outstanding cases was extremely inefficient and over 100,000 letters related to cases were left unopened. The report also found that attempts to deal with this backlog led to thousands of immigrants being allowed to stay in the UK without proper security checks. In order to deal with failures such as these, the Home Secretary announced in May 2013 that the UKBA is to be abolished and brought back under the direct control of minister.