But as I said in a speech in opposition, what matters most is not who comes into the country but who stays. Of course there are fair and legitimate reasons for people who arrive here temporarily to stay here permanently. But the figures clearly suggest that many gain temporary entry into the UK with no plans to leave. More than a fifth of students who entered Britain in 2004 were still here five years later – and many were supposed to be coming to study short courses.
But the most significant route to permanent settlement is the economic migration route. Last year, 84,000 people who initially came on a work visa got the right to settle here. I want Britain to continue to attract the best workers. But it cannot be right that people coming to fill short-term skills gaps can stay long-term.
As the Cross-Party Balanced Migration Group has argued, it is essential we break that link between temporary visas and permanent settlement.
They are right – that’s what this Government is determined to do … and we will consult on how best to proceed on this in the coming months.
So this is the progress we are making on cutting legal immigration and clamping down on the abuse of legitimate entry routes. And we are cracking down on illegal immigration too. This is a question of fairness – yes, to the British people … but also to those who have been shipped over here against their will, kept as slaves and forced to work horrendous hours.
So as part of our National Crime Agency, we are establishing a proper border policing command which will crack down on people smuggling. And because of better technology and closer working with the French, we have managed to cut the number of people identified trying to cross the Channel illegally by two thirds last year.
At the same time as stopping illegal immigrants coming to Britain, we are doing something about those who are already here. Two nationwide campaigns targeting illegal migrants have resulted in 1400 arrests, 330 prosecutions and 260 removals. And in the six months to the end of February, we collected some £3.6m in fines from employers of illegal workers.
What’s more, we’re closing the loophole that has allowed people who have worked here illegally to get unemployment benefits. Estimates suggest that as many as 155,000 illegal workers might be able to do this … with some eligible to claim over £5,000 in employment seekers allowance – each year.
That’s wrong – and we’re stopping it. We’re making sure that only people who have the right to work here can claim benefits. And we also recently announced that anyone who owes money to the NHS will be refused entry to the UK until they have paid back their debts.
So across border control, health policy, benefits policy … we are taking decisive action to close the gaps that for too long have allowed people to come here illegally and to stay here illegally.
Who will do these jobs?
So we can control both legal and illegal immigration. What is required is political will and the drive to make sure this agenda runs right across government.
But the third argument put forward by those who say we can’t control immigration is that immigration is not just a problem of supply but of demand. Put simply, immigration will always be high because British people won’t do the jobs migrant workers do.
I can see why this argument is made. Since 1997, the number of people in work in our economy has gone up by some 2.5 million. And of this increase, around 75% was accounted for by foreign-born workers … many of whom were employed to clean offices, serve in restaurants or work on building sites. At the same time we have had persistently, eye-wateringly high numbers of British born people stuck on welfare.
But let’s be clear about what our conclusions should be from this. This is not a case of ‘immigrants coming over here and taking our jobs’. The fact is – except perhaps in the very short-term – there are not a fixed number of jobs in our economy. If one hundred migrant workers come into the country, they don’t simply displace job opportunities for a hundred British citizens. Of course they take up vacancies that are available, but they also come and create wealth and new jobs.
The real issue is this: migrants are filling gaps in the labour market left wide open by a welfare system that for years has paid British people not to work. That’s where the blame lies – at the door of our woeful welfare system, and the last government who comprehensively failed to reform it.
So immigration and welfare reform are two sides of the same coin. Put simply, we will never control immigration properly unless we tackle welfare dependency. That’s another powerful reason why this government is undertaking the biggest shake-up of the welfare system for generations … making sure that work will always pay … and ending the option of living a life on the dole when a life in work is possible.
Take all these actions together, and I believe we are proving that we can control immigration.
But there’s another group of people I want to take on. The ones who accept we can control immigration, but have doubts about what our reforms will mean. The first thing they say is: these policies will deny British business of the talent they need to succeed. That’s plain wrong. Nothing – nothing – is more important to this government than growing our economy, creating jobs and prosperity across our country.
That’s why far from simply salami-slicing numbers coming here with no thought to the impact that will have on business, we have thought incredibly carefully about how we can select and attract the world’s brightest to our shores.
This was something the last government comprehensively failed to do. Yes, they introduced a points-based system for immigration, where people were admitted to our country according to the levels of skills they had … but only after being repeatedly called to do so by the Conservative party.
Yet once they put this in place, they failed to properly control it and effectively manage it. For example, tier one visas were supposed to be reserved for only the highest skilled migrants. But the evidence shows almost a third of people who came over on one of these visas were not employed in highly skilled jobs. Some were found stacking shelves in supermarkets or driving taxis – and that’s if they were employed at all.
Tier two visas were supposed to be reserved for skilled jobs such as engineers. But again, these visas were abused and misused. In one case, an applicant applied as an “elite chef” for a fried chicken shop. The main qualifying criterion was the rate of pay. So in this case, his sister, who owned the shop decided to pay him exactly the amount that allowed him to qualify. There was nothing the authorities could do and he was allowed in.
So it has fallen to this government to sort out the system – and we are completely changing the way it works so it is truly geared to the needs of our economy. We are reforming tier one, to make sure that it is genuinely a route only for the best. As part of that package of reform, we are introducing a new route for people of exceptional talent – like scientists, academics and artists. And we are introducing a new entrepreneur visa, to roll out the red carpet for anyone who has a great business idea and serious investment.
We are also reforming tier two visas. Business leaders have told us that as a country, we should prioritise skilled tier two, workers with a job offer rather than highly-skilled tier one workers without a job offer. So that’s what we’re doing.
For the coming year, even as we have reduced the number of economic migrants overall by seven thousand, we have actually increased the number of tier two visas available. And we have also raised the skills level so it is only open to graduate-level occupations – and excludes other jobs like careworkers and cooks. What’s more, we have exempted what are called ‘intra-company transfers’ from the limit while raising standards at the same time … so firms can still move their employees around the world, but not to fill permanent jobs that could be done by UK workers.
So I completely reject the idea that our new immigration rules will damage our economy.
The second thing some say is that our policies on student visas will damage our universities. Again, let me make clear: this government will do nothing to harm Britain’s status as a magnet for the world’s best students. That’s why with us, if you’re good at your subject, can speak English and have been offered a place on a course at a trusted institution – you will be able to get a visa to study here.
Put another way, Britain’s universities are free to market themselves globally saying: “You can come and study here at some of the finest institutions anywhere in the world – and you can stay and work in a graduate job after you leave.”
That makes our country a hugely attractive destination for genuine students who genuinely want to study abroad. What we don’t want is for this to be a hugely attractive destination for people who only want a passage to Britain. So we are cracking down on the abuses of the system.
In recent years there has also grown up a thriving industry of bogus colleges, providing bogus qualifications as cover for bogus visas. Of the 744 private colleges on the UK Border Agency sponsor register in January, only 131 had attained highly trusted sponsor status.
Yet, as of mid-January this year, the 613 private colleges who are not “highly trusted” have been able to sponsor 280,000 students between them. The potential for abuse is clearly enormous.
Indeed, we have been looking into the practice of some so-called colleges. In one case, students were sent off to so-called work placements in locations up to 280 miles away from the college where they were supposed to be studying on a regular basis.
In another, students were found working in 20 different locations and undertaking no study time whatsoever. In yet another case, there were 2 lecturers for 940 students.
Want to know how ridiculous things have got? An Indian organisation which helps people get student visas has put up a massive billboard in that country. It’s got a picture of London bus and the words “get a free ride to the UK” emblazoned across it.
Clearly, we cannot – and should not – put up with any of this. That’s why we’re getting to grips with the abuse and that’s why I reject the idea that our policy will damage our universities.
It really is simple: if you’re a genuine academic institution – you have nothing to worry about. But if you’re not, you do – and I make no apology for that.
What I have set out today is a sober, comprehensive and effective plan to cut immigration, and cut it substantially. Sober because we come to this debate clear-headed about not only the benefits of immigration … but also its impact on our public services, communities and society. Comprehensive because we are leaving no stone unturned, taking action across all routes of entry to our country. And effective – because we are doing all this in a way that strengthens our economy and enhances the status of our universities.
This time last year, we said we would listen to people’s concerns and get immigration under control. Today I can confidently say that we are getting there.
If we take the steps set out today, and deal with all the different avenues of migration, legal and illegal, then levels of immigration can return to where they were in the 1980s and 90s, a time when immigration was not a front rank political issue. And I believe that will mean net migration to this country will be in the order of tens of thousands each year, not the hundreds of thousands every year that we have seen over the last decade.
Yes, Britain will always be open to the best and brightest from around the world and those fleeing persecution. But with us, our borders will be under control and immigration will be at levels our country can manage. No ifs. No buts. That’s a promise we made to the British people. And it’s a promise we are keeping.