Sir Ed Davey MP: Britain’s immigration system is in desperate need of reform
Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson Sir Ed Davey writes in anticipation of the Government’s Immigration White Paper. He calls for a lifting of the ban on asylum seekers working while their cases are considered and “a more accountable Border Force and using better technology to prevent people from entering the country illegally”.
It’s now more than 16 months since the Government promised to bring forward an Immigration Bill. Ministers were originally due to publish their proposals in a white paper last summer. But, in an approach that typifies both the Government’s handling of Brexit and the Home Office’s handling of everything, they have been repeatedly delayed.
We’re now told to expect the white paper “very soon indeed”. I’m not holding my breath, but I sincerely hope that ministers have used the extra time to make sure their proposals are up to the challenges we face. Because there can be no doubt that Britain’s immigration system is in desperate need of reform.
The Windrush scandal laid bare appalling harms caused by the Conservatives’ “hostile environment”. We were rightly shocked by the revelations of people who came to Britain more than half a century ago and have lived and worked here perfectly legally ever since, being wrongfully denied access to benefits, housing and healthcare, being detained and even being deported.
But the terrible truth is that this scandal isn’t confined to the Windrush generation – and the grotesque failings of the Home Office haven’t been ended by the replacement of a Home Secretary, the repeated apologies, or the euphemistic change from a “hostile” to a “compliant” environment.
Landlords, NHS workers and even teachers are still required to act as border guards, countless people are still deprived of their rights, and public confidence in the immigration system remains in tatters.
To end the hostile environment, the net migration target that underpins it has to be scrapped. That target is arbitrary and damaging – driving the Home Office to ever-crueller attempts to bring down numbers – and it’s also counterproductive. Far from alleviating people’s concerns over immigration, the Conservatives’ predictable failure to meet their target over the past eight years has only fuelled those concerns.
But ditching the targets won’t be enough. Ministers have to get a proper grip on the whole system: from securing our borders to making sure applications are processed fairly and efficiently.
That requires a major overhaul, because we’re simply not going to get a grip while responsibility for all of this remains with the Home Office. After the Windrush scandal, the illegal demands for DNA, and last week’s contradictory statements about the rights of EU citizens, any shred of credibility the Home Office had on immigration is gone. It is, to coin a phrase, not fit for purpose.
So this white paper and any subsequent bill should mark the last time that the Home Office sets immigration policy. The Liberal Democrats are calling for policymaking on work permits, student visas and asylum to be given to the Departments for Business, Education and International Development respectively, as these parts of Whitehall aren’t infected by the Home Office’s toxic culture and also understand far better the needs of our economy, our universities, and refugees and asylum seekers.
While those departments would set policy, the actual processing of visa and asylum applications should be removed not just from the Home Office but from direct political control altogether. A new, arms-length, non-political agency should take over those functions, with the training and resources to process applications quickly, decide cases fairly, and get them right first time.
Restoring confidence also requires us to invest properly in securing our borders. That means recruiting more officers to a more accountable Border Force and using better technology to prevent people from entering the country illegally, tragically often victims of human trafficking bound for modern slavery. And it means finally completing the exit check system – reintroduced by the Liberal Democrats in coalition – so that people who do overstay their visas can be swiftly identified and dealt with.
Finally, the Government must do more to celebrate and harness the positive contributions that immigrants and asylum seekers offer our communities and our economy.
It should begin by lifting the ban that prevents asylum seekers from working while their cases are decided, even when the bureaucratic process drags on for many months and even years.
That is the Liberal Democrat approach to immigration and asylum: a more effective and compassionate approach that works for everyone and rebuilds trust in the system. And that is the standard by which we will judge the Government’s white paper… whenever it finally appears.
Rt Hon Sir Edward Davey is the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson and the MP for Kingston and Surbiton