A year ago, we were in the middle of a general election campaign. And there was one message I heard loud and clear on the doorstep: we want things to be different. People said they wanted a government that didn’t just do what was good for the headline or good for their party but good for the long term and good for our country. That’s what we’re engaged in.
Clearly, cutting public spending isn’t popular, but it’s right to bring sense to our public finances. People said they wanted a government that actually trusted them to use their own common sense. That’s the kind of government we want to be – giving neighbourhoods and individuals a whole range of new powers … scrapping so much of the bureaucracy that drove us mad.
People said they were sick of seeing those who did the right thing get punished and the wrong thing rewarded. Again, that’s what we’re acting on. In welfare we’re ending the system that took money from hard-working taxpayers and gave it to people who refused to work. These are the differences we are trying to make – listening to people, doing the hard and necessary work of changing our country for the better.
But there was something else we heard on the doorstep – and it was this: “We are concerned about the levels of immigration in our country … but we are fed up of hearing politicians talk tough but do nothing.” Here, again, we are determined to be different.
Now, immigration is a hugely emotive subject … and it’s a debate too often in the past shaped by assertions rather than substantive arguments. We’ve all heard them. The assertion that mass immigration is an unalloyed good and that controlling it is economic madness … the view that Britain is a soft touch and immigrants are out to take whatever they can get. I believe the role of politicians is to cut through the extremes of this debate and approach the subject sensibly and reasonably.
The last government, in contrast, actually helped to inflame the debate. On the one hand, there were Labour ministers who closed down discussion, giving the impression that concerns about immigration were somehow racist. On the other, there were ministers hell-bent on burnishing their hard-line credentials by talking tough … but doing nothing to bring the numbers down.
This approach had damaging consequences in terms of controlling immigration … but also in terms of public debate. It created the space for extremist parties to flourish, as they could tell people that mainstream politicians weren’t listening to their concerns or doing anything about them. I remember when immigration wasn’t a central political issue in our country – and I want that to be the case again. I want us to starve extremist parties of the oxygen of public anxiety they thrive on and extinguish them once and for all.
Above all, I want to get the policy right: good immigration, not mass immigration. That’s why I believe it’s time for a new approach – one which opens up debate, not closes it down; where politicians don’t just talk, but actually act.
Benefits of immigration
Let’s start with being open. The British people are fair-minded – and I want them to feel they can be honest about what they think about this subject. Here’s what I think. Our country has benefitted immeasurably from immigration. Go into any hospital and you’ll find people from Uganda, India and Pakistan who are caring for our sick and vulnerable. Go into schools and universities and you’ll find teachers from all over the world, inspiring our young people. Go to almost any high street in the country and you’ll find entrepreneurs from overseas who are not just adding to the local economy but playing a part in local life. Charities, financial services, fashion, food, music – all these sectors are what they are because of immigration. So yes, immigrants make a huge contribution to Britain. We recognise that – and we welcome it.
Pressures of immigration
But I’m also clear about something else: for too long, immigration has been too high. Between 1997 and 2009, 2.2 million more people came to live in this country than left to live abroad. That’s the largest influx of people Britain has ever had … and it has placed real pressures on communities up and down the country. Not just pressures on schools, housing and healthcare – though those have been serious … but social pressures too. Because real communities aren’t just collections of public service users living in the same space.
Real communities are bound by common experiences … forged by friendship and conversation … knitted together by all the rituals of the neighbourhood, from the school run to the chat down the pub. And these bonds can take time. So real integration takes time.
That’s why, when there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods … perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there … on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate … that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods.
This has been the experience for many people in our country – and I believe it is untruthful and unfair not to speak about it and address it.
So, taking all this into account, I believe controlling immigration and bringing it down is of vital importance to the future of our country. That’s why during the election campaign, Conservatives made a clear commitment to the British people … that we would aim to reduce net migration to the levels we saw in the 1980s and 1990s.
Now we are in government, we are on track to meet that aim. We are controlling legal immigration – having introduced a cap on non-EU economic migrants. We are clamping down on illegal immigration. And we are getting to grips with the asylum system too. The UK Border Agency is now close to clearing the back-log of almost half a million asylum cases. Our action is working.
But some myths have crept in – about what we’re doing and the impact our policies will have. There are those who say that whatever measures we put in place, we can’t control immigration significantly. And there are those who accept we can control immigration, but argue that the way we propose to do it will damage our economy and universities. Today I want to take those myths head-on.
Immigration from Europe
Let me begin by addressing those who say we can’t control immigration. They have three planks to their argument. First, they say legal immigration is impossible to control because we’re a member of the European Union. Second, they argue that illegal immigration can’t be controlled either because it’s impossible to properly police. And third, they say that immigration will always be high because immigrant workers do jobs that British people won’t do.
Each part of that argument is wrong. Take this question of Europe. Yes, our borders are open to people from other member states in the European Union. But actually, this counts for a small proportion of overall net migration to the UK. In the year up to June 2010, net migration to our country from EU nationals was just 27,000.
That’s not to say migration from Europe has been insignificant. Since 2004, when many large eastern European countries joined the EU, more than one million people from those countries have come to live and work in the UK – a huge number. We said back then that transitional controls should have been put in place to restrict the numbers coming over. And now we’re in government, if and when new countries join the European Union, transitional controls will be put in place.
But this remains the fact: when it comes to immigration to our country, it’s the numbers from outside the EU that really matter. In the year up to June 2010, net migration from nationals of countries outside the EU to the UK totalled 198,000. This is the figure we can more easily control and should control.
Last week, our new immigration cap for people coming here to work from outside the EU came into force. It means for the next twelve months, we will not allow employers to recruit more than 20,700 skilled workers from outside Europe. And we’ve already shown a cap can work. Last July, we placed interim limits on the number of visas we would give for skilled workers – and this kept the numbers down to under 20,000.
Of course employment is just one of the routes of entry and settlement into this country. Every year tens of thousands of people marry into Britain or join their families here. Now many of these are genuine, loving relationships. But we also know there are abuses of the system.
For a start there are forced marriages taking place in our country, and overseas as a means of gaining entry to the UK. This is the practice where some young British girls are bullied and threatened into marrying someone they don’t want to. I’ve got no time for those who say this is a culturally relative issue – it is wrong, full stop, and we’ve got to stamp it out.
Then there are just the straightforward sham marriages. Last summer, we ordered the UK Border Agency to clamp down on these and they’ve had significant success, making 155 arrests. And there was also the shocking case of a vicar who was jailed for staging over 300 sham marriages.
But as well as abuse of the system, there are other problems with the family route. We know, for instance, that some marriages take place when the spouse is very young, and has little or no grasp of English. Again we cannot allow cultural sensitivity to stop us from acting. That’s why last November we introduced a requirement for all those applying for a marriage visa to demonstrate a minimum standard of English … and we will defend the age limit of 21 for spouses coming to the UK.
So however sensitive or difficult a subject it may be, we are tightening up the family route. But by far the biggest route for non-EU entrants into this country has been the student visa route. Immigration by students has almost trebled in the past decade. Last year, some 303,000 visas were issued overseas for study in the UK.
But this isn’t the end of the story. Because a lot of those students bring people with them to this country … husbands, wives, children. Indeed, last year, 32,000 visas were issued to the dependents of students. Again, many of these applications are for legitimate students doing legitimate courses with legitimate dependents coming over with them. But we know that some of these student applications are bogus, and in turn their dependents are bogus.
Consider this: a sample of 231 visa applications for the dependents of students found that only twenty-five percent of them were genuine dependents. The others? Some were clearly gaming the system and had no genuine or loving relationship with the student. Others we just couldn’t be sure about.
The whole system was out of control – and we’re now getting to grips with it. We’re targeting bogus colleges that offer sham courses. We’re making sure that anyone studying a degree-level course has a proper grasp of the English language. We’re saying that only postgraduate students can bring dependents.
And we’re making sure that if people come over here to study, they should be studying not working … and that when they’ve finished their studies, they go home unless they are offered a graduate-level skilled job, with a minimum salary.
Taken together, we estimate that these proposals will cut the number of student visas issued by around 80,000 a year. So across all the main routes of entry to Britain – work, family, education – we are taking action, simultaneously. And the key word here is ‘simultaneously’.
As the Home Secretary has said, controlling immigration by clamping down on one route alone is “like squeezing a balloon … Push down work visas and the number of student visas will shoot up. Clamp down on student visas and family visas will spring up.”
For years, people have been playing the system, exploiting the easiest routes of entry to the UK. Now, because of what we’re doing, this country finally has consistent controls right across the immigration system