In a speech in London, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg set out his views on immigration.
A full transcript is below.
It should come as no surprise that I’m a believer in the benefits of well-managed immigration.
I lead, in my view, Britain’s only real internationalist party. For the Liberal Democrats this nation is always at its best when we are open and outward-facing. We draw immense pride from living in a country which, throughout its history, has always said: if you come here, if you contribute, if you play your part, Britain will give you a chance.
So I am never going to advocate pulling up the drawbridge because I think it’s what people want to hear. The Liberal Democrats are never going to mimic the likes of UKIP and others – the scaremongering, the immigrant-bashing, the seductive promise that all our problems will disappear if only we shut up shop and stick a ‘closed’ sign on the door.
We don’t meet every visitor with automatic suspicion. We believe everyone, no matter where they come from, should be treated with respect.
It wasn’t the Liberal Democrats who arranged for vans emblazoned with the words ‘Go Home’ to prowl around the streets of London. Had Jeremy Browne – the Liberal Democrat in the Home Office at the time – been consulted we would have put a stop to it then and there.
It was the Liberal Democrats, by contrast, who insisted that the Coalition’s Immigration Act include the outlawing of child detention: no more putting children stuck in the immigration system behind bars. Labour locked up thousands and thousands of little boys and girls every year. We stopped it as soon as we came into power. We’ll leave this Government knowing that no future Labour government – or indeed any government – will be able to do it again.
Dignity. Compassion. Core liberal values and core British values. If you believed everything you read in some of our newspapers you’d think the real Britain is insular, fearful and closed. Yes, look across the country and you’ll see concerns over immigration and some concrete problems. But you’ll also see many non-Brits living and working side-by-side with British-born citizens as colleagues, neighbours, couples, friends.
Two years ago, when Britain hosted the Olympics, we welcomed in the world and we revelled in our diversity. Our heritage is a glorious patchwork of different cultures and influences. My mother is Dutch. My father’s mother a Russian émigré. My wife, Spanish. I am like millions of British citizens whose roots can be traced around the globe.
So I do not accept that we are a closed society. I do not accept that we are condemned to the same trajectory we are witnessing across parts of Europe, where chauvinism and xenophobia are on the march.
But I do believe that being a nation at ease with diversity and difference does not happen by accident. Successful immigration systems have to be managed. People need to see that they are good for society as a whole. Otherwise all you do is create fear and resentment – you give populists an open goal.
And for years our immigration system wasn’t properly managed. Up and down Britain today, around kitchen tables, in the pub, at work, conversation will turn, probably for the millionth time, to the problems of immigration: the unfairness people feel; the threats they see to their way of life.
Does that make you a racist? No it does not. More often than not these are understandable and legitimate concerns. Under the last government people were constantly told one thing only to then experience another. Some of our communities have undergone huge change over what is, relatively, a very short space of time. Labour failed spectacularly to manage that change and equally to manage public expectations – not least, of course, over the number of Eastern Europeans who came here as the EU enlarged.
So no wonder so many people still worry about immigration. But the answer is not tough talk. It isn’t pretending that we can or should boot out every foreigner. The answer is getting down to the nitty gritty of reforming the system so that it works properly – so that we retain the open character of our economy and the generous spirit of our society while also giving people confidence that it’s not a free for all, the rules are fair and enforced, and the system works in Britain’s interest overall.
People have grown sceptical over the years and I understand why. But four years as Deputy Prime Minister have confirmed to me that we can marry our ideals about the open, welcoming Britain we love with the realities of running a effective immigration system. We can keep Britain open-hearted, open-minded and open-for-business and at the same time ensure our hospitality isn’t open to abuse.
It just takes a lot of work.
The Coalition has made extremely important progress, but this is like turning round an oil tanker: we inherited a system in utter disarray. When we came to power UKBA was out of control: collapsing under the weight of its own backlogs with no clue what to prioritise first. No one could tell us the basics: who’s here? Who’s left? Where are the holes in the system?
And, to be candid, we weren’t helped by the fact that my Coalition partners came into Government with the wrong priority.
The Conservatives were completely fixated on the net migration target, and, specifically, their pledge to get it down to 10s of 1000s – a Tory rallying cry in opposition.
I told David Cameron during the Leader’s debates – and in the early part of Government: ‘you’ll never deliver it’. I made sure it wasn’t in the Coalition Agreement precisely because it’s unrealistic; because it’s based on a fallacy: if a million Brits leave and a million migrants come you get net migration of zero – does that mean you’ve done the job? And because the last thing we need is yet another overpromise.
Thankfully the Conservatives have now softened their attachment to the net migration target and backed away from “10s of 1000s” – omitted entirely, for example, from the Prime Minister’s immigration article last week. They’ve realised they won’t deliver it. And bluntly it’s made it much easier for us to get things done.
It was right for Theresa May to split UKBA into two, separate services: visas and enforcement – one to administer legal immigration, the other to prevent illegal immigration – and bring it all back under Ministers’ control.
We’ve been very effective on some of the worst loopholes – notably the fake student route. On the last count we’d closed down around 750 bogus colleges.
People will no longer be able to play the appeals system so easily – previously you could appeal on 17 different grounds, moving from one to the next each time you were refused. Now there are only four, helping clear the path for genuine appeals too.
We’re toughening up on people who exploit migrants as cheap labour. Last year I said I wanted to see the fines increase for employers paying below the minimum wage – they have now quadrupled to up to £20,000 per employee.
And we are the first Government to get a handle on the access migrants from other parts of Europe have to our benefits system. It’s a hugely complicated area, and not without controversy, but we’re doing it.
There will be no coming to Britain and claiming out-of-work benefits on day one. The Prime Minister announced last week that the period for which you can claim at all will be reduced to 3 months unless you have a realistic prospect of finding a job. We’ve also made it impossible for newly arrived migrants to leapfrog local people patiently queuing for social housing – you’ll have to live in an area for two years before you can be added to the list. These are changes every liberal should support because a sense of fair play is the best antidote we have to resentment and mistrust.
So the Coalition has made good progress: reforming the system so that the rules are firm but fair, tough but smart – and to finish that job we need sustained action on four fronts.
One: more needs to be done to bear down on illegal immigration.
No one can tell you exactly how many people are living here illegally. The truth is nobody knows. There are estimates – anywhere between half a million and one and a half million – but by definition these people are living below the radar.
What we do know is the damage it does. The crime. The black economy. The slave labour. The beds-in-sheds. No real winners except rogue employers and dodgy landlords.
We’ve withdrawn thousands of driving licenses from illegal immigrants. Last week we announced new rules to prevent illegal immigrants from opening bank accounts. And I can confirm today that we are clamping down on sham marriages too.
When people want to remain in the UK, they’ll do everything they can to stay, and as we close more loopholes more and more people who don’t have permission to live in Britain are paying to marry someone who does.
It’s an industry – and a growing one, with around 2000 sham marriages reported every year. We know that there are criminal gangs charging thousands of pounds for a fake wife. Vulnerable women from Eastern Europe – who are allowed to enter Britain as members of the EU – are being trafficked here to be offered to illegal immigrants from outside Europe; to be used as anchor brides.
So we are making it much harder to get away with – and we are enlisting Britain’s registrars to help.
It is an insult to their profession and the institution of marriage when they have to conduct a ceremony and the groom doesn’t even know his future wife’s maiden name. Many registrars are unsure of exactly what is required from them so we have written, into the Immigration Act, that we expect registrars to tell the Home Office of any suspicion they have that a couple is bogus or an individual is here illegally. We are also issuing advice directly to all registrars so they know exactly what to do.
From next year we are going to extend the notice period for all couples seeking to marry or enter into a civil partnership from 15 to 28 days. And when someone rings the alarm we’ll be able to pause proceedings for 70 days while the Home Office investigates. Currently a marriage application can be refused if we can prove it’s fake – but that can be extremely difficult when the Home Office has such little time to react. With this change we will prevent sham marriages speeding through registry offices.
I can also tell you that the Government is upping the number of inspectors tasked, specifically, with identifying businesses hiring people, including migrants, for less than the minimum wage. We’re investing over a million pounds in a beefed-up, bespoke team. Rather than just respond to tip offs they will proactively go after the worst offending employers, including those running care homes, recruitment agencies and top class hotels
Above all, if we are really going to tackle illegal immigration in a meaningful way, we must complete the job of putting proper border checks in place.
This is fundamental. Illegal immigration isn’t just about people sneaking in in the back of a lorry. We have a major problem in this country with people coming over legitimately with a visa and then overstaying their welcome once it expires. But without border checks we don’t know who they are because we don’t know who has gone. Identifying overstayers, restricting the access they then have to benefits and services, finding them, deporting them – these are all things we can do, but only once we know who is and isn’t here.
Britain used to have exit checks – successive Conservative and Labour governments phased them out. I insisted that we commit, in the Coalition Agreement, to reintroducing them and I’ve been very open about my frustration that the Home Office has taken so long to get going. They didn’t make this a priority in the early years – as I said, the Conservatives were fixated on the illusory net migration target. Before the election around 57% of entry and exit points were covered by proper checks. By March last year we were only at 65%.
So I intervened and I’m pleased to say we are now at 80% and we’re working with Eurotunnel and the big ferry companies to continue plugging the gaps. If the Home Office hasn’t completed this by the election the Liberal Democrats will put it in our manifesto again.
The second area where more needs to be done is European migration.
I want to be unequivocal: freedom of movement between EU member states is a good thing.
It’s a cornerstone of European integration; a right currently enjoyed by around one and a half million British citizens who live on the other side of the Channel. It is necessary in order to be part of the world’s biggest Single Market where goods and people can flow between nations. Those who wish to undo it should be careful what they wish for: the blow to UK prosperity would be immense.
But the way freedom of movement works should change as Europe changes.
The EU is a very different creature to when freedom of movement was first conceived – when the then European Community was 15 countries of similar sizes and with similar economies. It is now a 28-member bloc, with huge wealth discrepancies across its members. It is only right – and I say this as a pro-European – that we reform freedom of movement to reflect these realities. It is a right to work. It was never intended as an automatic right to claim benefits, but over time the distinction has been blurred.
For that reason the Coalition has taken the unprecedented action I referred to earlier to restrict the access to benefits granted to European nationals. But I also believe that, when the EU enlarges in the future, we’ll need to be stricter and clearer on the transition controls we apply to new member states – the time between a country joining the EU and its people being able to move here.
In 2004 Labour said up to 13,000 people from countries like Poland and Hungary would come here every year. The real figure was around 170,000. When Romania and Bulgaria joined, Labour said no one from those countries would arrive ahead of the transition controls being lifted at the beginning of this year. Yet 60,000 Romanians and Bulgarians were already working here through a loophole for anyone who registered as self-employed.
Is it any wonder – when people have been repeatedly told one thing only to then see another - that so many have lost faith in Government’s ability to manage the flow of migrants from new EU states?
The hidden carve out for the self-employed was meant to allow in entrepreneurs who wouldn’t fill positions that could otherwise be taken by British nationals and who would actually create jobs instead.
The reality was that Romanians and Bulgarians were taking low-paid jobs but registering as self-employed. They gave up their rights – no sick pay, no leave. Their employers didn’t have to pay National Insurance for them. British workers in industries like food and agriculture felt they couldn’t compete. And yet again the reassurances that had been provided to the British people were shown to be false.
Any transition controls for any new member state joining in the future need to be acceptable to the British people and do exactly what they say on the tin.
To that end I can tell you that, whenever the EU enlarges in the future, I want the Liberal Democrats to argue for the removal of the special exemption for the self-employed - and if we're in Government again, we should insist on it. This loophole can’t be forced on Britain and we mustn't accept it.
We also need to be prepared to go beyond the 7 year maximum for transition controls, depending on the size and economy of the country joining the EU – and the extent to which we expect it’s nationals to look for work here. I also believe we’ll need to agree a period of time in which existing member states including Britain retain the right to put on the brakes if people begin arriving in numbers too big for our society to absorb successfully.
This is not about bolting the door, but it is about steadying the flow of people into Britain in a way that is careful and honest. It is in everyone’s interests – British born or not – for people living here to feel confident that, when a new member joins the EU, there will be no surprises and they have nothing to fear.
Third area of action: everyone who wants to settle in Britain should speak English.
There is now a big consensus around this. A common language is the glue that binds a society. The ability to communicate is essential in allowing communities to integrate and in making sure every person living here has a voice.
Ask the students who take English language lessons in this centre – they will tell you that as their English improves, so do their lives in Britain. It makes migrants feel empowered; they feel more welcome; the opportunities open to them are transformed.
But it doesn’t happen without intervention. The Coalition has already made English language tests part of all visa applications. We’ve raised the level of English required from skilled workers as well as the husbands and wives of people coming to live and work in the UK. We’ve given Jobcentre advisers power to put people looking for work onto English language courses – and if you don’t go you lose your benefits.
And we need to keep going, pulling every lever we have. So I have also now told Her Majesty’s Passport Office and the DVLA that I want them to stop subsidising translation services for people applying for passports and driving licences. Obtaining a passport and drivers’ license is a privilege and ‘right of passage’ in this country. I think it is only right that someone gaining such rights should be able to speak English to an appropriate standard and I certainly don’t think everyone else should pay for them to use an interpreter or other translation service if they can’t. Far better we ask the Passport Office and the DVLA to try and help those individuals onto an English language course instead.
Brightest and the best
Finally, as we crack down on illegality, as we return Freedom of Movement to being a fair right rather than a feared threat, as we continue to encourage people to speak English, there’s one more thing we need to do.
Britain must remain a magnet for the brightest and the best.
The membership of the CBI – Britain’s biggest businesses – could not have been clearer in their warning at the end of last year: there is a global talent pool for which Britain must compete along with the other major economies of the world.
I’m like you: I want to see as much home grown talent in top jobs as possible. I want Britain’s young people to grow up into the world’s best astrophysicists and chemical engineers and software designers, and I want them to be based here in the UK. But our businesses need people now. Britain is a fantastic place to live – but so is New York, Dubai, Rio, Berlin, Shanghai.
So we have to fight for the best people. That’s why my party was clear from the start that there shouldn’t be a cap on student numbers. We want the world’s best students in our universities – and we should be encouraging them to find high value jobs here afterwards which, in turn, create jobs and growth in our economy.
We have taken steps to ensure our country remains open for business, open for entrepreneurship. It is now easier, for example, to come to Britain as a young entrepreneur, through our new visa scheme for exceptional graduates with promising business ideas.
I also want to see a more intelligent approach to the visas we give high value investors.
At the moment they are asked to invest £1m in either a low-risk government bond or shares in a FTSE company and, providing they satisfy all of the other criteria, they are allowed to stay. That’s been the situation for decades, but it should now be changed to deliver better benefits for the British economy.
For a start, the level has been set at £1m since 1994. These are very wealthy individuals who can afford much more. The Business Department has looked at increasing this to £2m and there’s no reason to believe this will put off the kind of people applying for these visas.
What’s more, their investments should be spent on the things the country needs. I want us to consult on exactly how to do that, but in my view this money should be invested in a wider range of productive sectors, with the highest priority given to clean, green industry. That is smart immigration – encouraging high value investors to invest more money in the real economy for the sake of Britain.
An open economy. Inclusive communities. Freedom of movement yes, freedom to claim no. Proper controls without loopholes. Border checks which count people out and count people in. In short, an immigration system in which people can finally have faith. All this can be done, but it takes work.
We are finally getting to grips with the system; finally dealing with people’s concerns; finally building a system in line with our values - open hearted, generous spirited, but not open to abuse. I just hope the Liberal Democrats get another five years in Government so that we can see it through. Thank you.