The Conservative Party is well and truly reverting to type in its efforts to beat back the Lib Dems and win an overall majority. Every time I see a Tory on television, they are banging on about immigration and putting more people in jail. I am rather grateful to the election campaign for reminding me just how unpleasant the Tories really are.
Whatever your views, I do not see how anybody can disagree that the Lib Dems deserve credit for bringing out into the open the question of what we do about Britian’s illegal immigrants. I have long argued for an amnesty.
Nobody has attempted to answer Nick Clegg’s question as to what you do with these illegal immigrants if you do not regularise them. In the second debate David Cameron interjected
“You deport them” to which Nick Clegg replied “You do not even know where they live”.
The problem is immense. The Tories are repeatedly claiming that the Lib Dem amnesty would apply to 600,000 people and their potential partners. I do not know what the Tories mean by the figure – is it meant to be illegal immigrants who have been here more than ten years, as in the Lib Dem proposal? As a total for illegal immigrants, it is too small. By definition nobody knows the exact total, but clues like money transfer remittances show it is well over a million.
Is Cameron seriously suggesting we deport over a million people? To find them would require a security operation and security service powers that would destroy civil liberties in this country forever. You would need vast internment camps. You would need countries willing to take them back, and then at least 4,000 return jumbo jet flights full of coerced prisoners.
You would, of course, also cause the total collapse of the hotel and hospitality, catering, cleaning service, agriculture and domestic service industries in this country, with selective shortages in areas of computing, construction and other skilled work also.
Most people in London know illegal immigrants. Round here, they are our neighbours. In the kind of places the Camerons and Baroness Scotland live, they are the maids. Who is serving and cooking the restaurant food, and scrubbing the toilets? It is a nonsense to pretend it is not happening.
There are three alternatives – an amnesty, a Nazi scale round-up and deportation programme, or we pretend it is not happening and continue to exploit these people who are working, usually through exploitative agencies, at below the minimum wage.
The reason that immigration from non-EU countries got out of control is very poor visa issuing decisions in visa sections abroad. A quite extraordinary amount of that was conditioned by the government’s strange tolerance, for a decade, of literally hundreds of entirely bogus language schools, and other colleges offering very low level further education courses. But the majority of illegal immigrants entered as visitors.
Perhaps the most important factor – and one I have not seen commented on anywhere – has been the catastrophic decline in the staffing of visa sections abroad. Here I speak from experience, as somebody who has line managed two visa sections, one of them then the fifth biggest in the world (Accra). In all I worked in four visa posts, and was literally manning the barricades at the British High Commission in Lagos on the first day that Nigerians needed visas to come to the UK.
There has been a reduction of colossal proportions in the number of visa applications abroad which are ever seen by a full time career immigration officer. Currently the percentage of visa issue decisions abroad taken by a career immigration officer is below 5%.
In much of the world, receipt of visa applications and initial sift has been privatised, with Tier 1 issues (no problem, straight visa) being agreed by young unqualified staff with no qualifications, either 2 or 3 weeks training, and on very low salaries.
Where applications do come to regular civil service staff for decision, the grade, age, qualification, salary scale and experience of those staff are much lower than they used to be. UK Visas is a joint FCO/Home Office(UKBA) operation. When I first was involved in visa sections, all visa issues were decided at the lowest at what was then called Grade 9 executive level. Now most front line visa staff are what used to be called Grade 10 clerical level. I have managed staff engaged in issuing and refusing visas, whose judgement I would not trust in deciding what class to post a letter.
I would stress that the numerous terrible decisions being made are by no means all issues. It is bad decision making, not one way decision making, which is the problem. Many a British business has lost a contract due to the inexplicable refusal of a visa to an important foreign visitor for them.
The same delegation of visa work to lower pay grades affects the immigration service/UKBA. It surprises people when I say that some of the most intelligent and best read people I ever worked with were senior immigration officers. Paul Williams and Colin Eborall I hope will not mind me mentioning them in this context, and both went on to be Chief Immigration Officers at Heathrow and higher. Like many other immigration officers I worked with, they made a great effort to understand the culture of the people in the country where they were based, and they made sensible decisions without a drop of prejudice.
But the number of seasoned career immigration officers posted abroad has fallen drastically as a percentage of the staff of visa sections, quite simply due to purblind cost cutting. The emphasis is all on what it costs to process a visa, even though those costs are self-evidently as nought compared to the cost to the economy of bad decisions.
Finally, I would say that I have no doubt that New Labour allowed immigrant communities to expand massively quite deliberately, as they know they benefit in elections.
Immigration. It needs an amnesty for those already here, and firm controls on new immigration administered by a truly professional and competent cadre of immigration officers. The problem is not those who apply as migrants, for which I have no great argument with the points system. Immigration is good for the UK and good for the economy. There will continue to be large scale immigration from the EU for some time yet.
The problem is those who apply as visitors or low level students and then become illegal immigrants. What we need to be able better to do is distinguish between genuine visitors and students, and those whose intention is to immigrate. That is the biggest problem, and that is where it is not rules or laws that need to be changed, but the civil service that needs to be better staffed and resourced.