Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
Theresa May has announced that vans telling illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest” will not be used across the country, with the Home Secretary calling them “too much of a blunt instrument”. The controversial pilot in London has completed its evaluation, with the full report recently published.
The government’s general policy is to reduce net migration. There are multiple new restrictions on coming to Britain, including annual caps on the number non-EU workers entering Britain, salary requirements for non-EU spouses, ‘health levies’ on temporary migrants as well as requirements for all private landlords to check their tenant’s immigration status. The Office for National Statistics estimates the number of long-term migrants has fallen from about 600,000 in 2010 to slightly less than 500,000 in 2012. Immigration Minister Mark Harper said the vans were about “making it more difficult for people to live and work in the UK illegally”.
Civil rights group Liberty claimed the vans “had racist connotations – mirroring National Front slogans from the 1970s”, and drove round their own vans near Westminster with the slogan “Stirring up tension and division in the UK illegally? Home Office, think again”. The Home Office’s vans are estimated to have cost £10,000; reprimanded by the Advertised Standards Authority for using misleading statistics. However, the government was cleared over complaints that the campaign was offensive and irresponsible. The scheme had encouraged only 11 illegal immigrants to return home, with over two-thirds of the received text messages merely hoaxes.
This row has aggravated severe differences between the coalition partners. The Liberal Democrats have shown outrage, with Business Secretary Vince Cable calling the campaign “stupid and offensive”. The party president Tim Farron stated: “This is a failed project and the Home Office should hold their hands up and admit it was wrong, both practically and morally”.
Alternately, Conservative concerns are based on the scheme’s inefficacy, with Theresa May telling MPs: “I think politicians should be willing to step up to the plate and say when something actually hasn’t been a good idea.” The 2010 Conservative manifesto called for immigration to be cut, with the Coalition Agreement seeking “an annual limit on the number of non-EU economic migrants”.
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said Labour’s immigration plans were unlike the government’s “gimmicks”. Labour’s ideas include forcing large firms hiring non-EU workers to offer apprenticeships in return, which the Institute of Directors called “completely removed from reality”. Labour leader Ed Miliband has also said the party was wrong to not impose transitional controls on the number of Eastern European immigrants when new countries joined the EU in 2004.
In most opinion polls, immigration is a high priority. Various polls found support for these vans, whilst voters consistently rejected the premise they were ‘offensive’ or ‘racist’. A recent YouGov poll found that 78% believed that “the last Labour government admitted too many immigrants” – 52% agreeing strongly. Pollster Lord Ashcroft’s report – Small Island: Public Opinion and the Politics of Immigration – discovered a knowledge deficit amongst voters. For example, 87% of Ashcroft’s responders thought that reforming the student visa system and closing bogus colleges was a good idea, but only 42% believed the government had actually done this. Ipsos MORI revealed that voters believed 31% of the population are immigrants, when the ONS figures showed it was about 13%.
The political debate around immigration is a high priority fused with low information. Policies are often designed to generate headlines, rather than generate success. These political flares can often attract media attention to particular ministers; satiating speculation that Theresa May is preparing herself as leader of a post-Cameron Conservative Party.
Note: This article was written for the Politics Section in bathimpact, published on the 4th November 2013. I would like to thank Deputy Editor Tomos Evans for his suggested sub-edits.