When New Labour came to power in 1997, just 3% of the public cited immigration as a key issue. By the time of the EU referendum in 2016, that figure was 48%. As a consequence, migration has become a key issue in political campaigns on all sides of the spectrum. For years, MPs have relied on strong rhetoric about migration in setting ambitious goals for “net migration”, installing the hostile environment and finally, in their approach to Brexit. In reality, harsh numerical targets have often not been met, and promises have failed to materialise. As evidenced by the three major party manifestos before the election of 12 December, immigration remains a hot topic. We take a look at the manifestos of the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the ruling Conservative party, and what they intend to do about an immigration system that desperately needs reform to help you make an informed decision.
One major issue on which the three parties have outlined a clear and very different strategy is Brexit. The Liberal Democrats, staunch Remainers from the very beginning, still promise that if they are elected, they will revoke Article 50, end Brexit and save freedom of movement for EEA nationals. The Labour Party backs a second referendum, promising that if they win, they will negotiate a new deal within three months, and present it to the people alongside an option to remain in the Union within six months – this time, as a legally binding referendum. The Tories remain committed to Brexit no matter what it may cost and promise to deliver it by January, based on Boris Johnson’s deal.
In a post-Brexit Britain, the Conservative Party Manifesto sets out that the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) will remain as it is, and that in the future EU nationals will be treated exactly the same as other foreign nationals. As such, people coming into the country from the EU will only be able to access unemployment, housing, and child benefits after five years, in the way non-EEA migrants currently do. They will also have to pay an NHS health surcharge to access public health services, the price of which the Tories promise to increase to reflect the full cost of use. The only care that will still be free under a Tory government is emergency care for those in need.
Labour, on the other hand, have a different approach. They propose to end the uncertainty of the EUSS by making it a declaratory scheme instead of an application process. A declaratory scheme would essentially establish that the rights one has now are carried through with them for their lifetime. Residents can then obtain physical evidence of their lawful lifetime residence right by asking for it. Lobbying groups such as the 3 million have endorsed such a declaratory scheme, arguing it ends the uncertainty of the EUSS, shields against the hostile environment policies, as well as guarantees favourable treatment of UK citizens living abroad in return.
The Liberal Democrats, then, have no proposals in place for if Brexit goes ahead. Their view is that they will do anything to stop it from happening; even if they do not win the election, the party says they will back a second referendum and campaign to remain.
On immigration policy, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats promise to end the hostile environment, decriminalise illegal working, and end indefinite detention. The Liberal Democrats openly advocate for a 28-day-time limit on detention, and for any decision to detain an individual for longer than 72 hours to be approved by the courts. This position was recommended to Parliament by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in their 16th report of the 2017-2019 session. Additionally, the LibDems want to close seven out of nine detention centres currently open in the UK, whereas Labour promises to close two of them, and to use the immediate savings towards a fund of £20 million to support the survivors of modern slavery, human trafficking and domestic violence.
All parties promise support for victims of the Windrush scandal, with the Conservative party offering to build a memorial for the Windrush generation. In the same symbolistic vein, the Tories have moved away from their rhetoric of “reducing net migration” although their manifesto still states that they will “keep the numbers down.” They propose to do this by instating a points-based system not unlike the one in Australia. The points-based system would be based on three pillars: education, English language skills, and criminality. The Tories promises to make decisions on who comes to this country on the basis of the skills they have and the contribution they can make to the country – not where they come from. The visa system, under the points-based system, would be rebooted, with many old visa routes being brought back to life, such as the post-study visa extension, the NHS visa, and the new start-up visa. The Tories also promise entry and exit checks, emphasising that the British people will be able to take back control of their borders.
The Liberal Democrats propose the most radical reforms to the immigration system as a whole. Not only do they promise to break down existing barriers as well as add new routes to permanent status - they also propose to remove the exemption of the Data Protection Act for immigration as well as separate enforcement and border control from decision-making. The former measure protects data privacy by establishing a firewall to prevent public agencies from sharing personal information with the Home Office for the purposes of immigration enforcement. The latter would prevent perverse factors from playing a role in decision-making by taking policymaking out of the Home Office altogether. Instead, the Liberal Democrats want to establish a new arms-length, non-political agency to take over processing applications, thus increasing the separation of power. As such, they would move policymaking on work permits and student visas out of the Home Office and into the Departments for Business and Education respectively. They would also move asylum policymaking from the Home Office to the Department for International Development and establish a dedicated unit to improve the speed and quality of decision-making. This may seem like a welcome development for those who have said that the Home Office needs to change its approach to asylum from the ground up, but the Institute of Government report was equivocal about the benefits of such separation. It could trouble accountability by splitting up decision-making, and case management where individuals and families don’t fit neatly into one category could be difficult. And finally, the Liberal Democrats, like Labour, will seek to reduce the fee for registering a child as a British citizen from £1,012 to the cost of administration – something that we’ve advocated for ourselves.
Labour, then, says the Tories have required landlords, teachers and medical staff to work as unpaid immigration officers when they created a hostile environment, instead of setting up an effective border control. A Labour government will therefore review the border controls to make them more effective. They also promise to scrap the 2014 Immigration Act passed by the then-Conservative government, restore legal aid cuts, and end the deportation of family members of people entitled to be here and end the minimum income requirements which separate families. They focus on cooperation with Europe and especially France to resume rescue missions in the Mediterranean and end the horrific camps and homelessness which the current immigration regime has led to. Similarly to the Liberal Democrats, Labour will allow asylum seekers to work whilst awaiting a decision on their status, and decriminalise illegal working.
All three parties claim to be advocating for humane, fair and compassionate immigration regimes. It is now up to the voters to show whose programme is most convincing.