The Labour government, in power from 1997 to 2010, introduced many new immigration rules. These included the creation of a new immigration authority, the introduction of a points-based immigration system for workers and the use of biometric data in passports. Despite this, the concerns felt by some about the level of immigration to the UK appear to have increased.
The Impact of Immigration on the UK’s Political Landscape
An influx of immigrants from new EU countries may have affected perceptions about the level of immigration in general. However, due to EU law, there is very little that the government of an EU member state can do to prevent immigration from within the EU. The belief that bogus asylum-seekers see the UK as a soft touch – an easy route to free housing and state benefits – may also have contributed to putting immigration back onto the political agenda. The old complaint about foreigners coming to the UK to take British homes and jobs may resonate more strongly with some sectors of society when the country is suffering the effects of a global recession.
As in the 1970s, when the UK was also mired in an economic recession, the late 2000s saw immigration rising back towards the top of the political agenda for some sectors of British society. Some observers believed that the UK’s electorate was preoccupied with immigration. This was exploited by far right, anti-immigration political parties, who hoped it would allow them to achieve unprecedented success in the General Election of 2010. However, fears that ordinary voters would support these “single-issue” parties proved to have been largely unfounded. The far right parties did even worse in May 2010 than they had in some previous elections.
The Immigration Policies of the UK’s Coalition Government
The General Election resulted in a hung parliament. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties finally came together to achieve an overall majority. Due to the very different policies these parties put forward in their election manifestos, observers found it hard to predict which policies the coalition would adopt on immigration. After days of negotiations the new parliament was officially opened and the government’s new policies were revealed in the Queen’s Speech.
One of the first announcements made on the subject of immigration was that the new government plans to impose an annual restriction on the number of non-EU immigrants. A cap on non-EU immigration was a core election manifesto policy of the Conservative party – and of many of the far-right parties who campaigned almost solely on immigration issues. However, prior to the election, the Liberal Democrats had been vocal in their criticisms of the Conservatives’ proposed policies on immigration.
The Liberal Democrats had proposed a system that would allow non-EU immigrants to come to specific parts of the UK where their skills were needed to fill gaps in the local labour market. Critics of this policy queried how immigrants would be prevented from moving to other parts of the UK once they got into the country. How these two apparently divergent approaches to immigration would be reconciled was one of the questions many asked before the coalition government’s policies were finally revealed.
Unsurprisingly, the Conservative Party – having won substantially more seats than the Liberal Democrats – seems to have won the negotiations on the issue of non-EU immigration. One of the first announcements made by the new government was their plan to impose a limit on the number of non-EU immigrants who can come to the UK each year.
Obstacles to Imposing a Cap on Non-EU Immigration
The new government has stated that it wishes net immigration (i.e. the difference between the number of people coming to the UK and the numbers emigrating from the UK) to be limited to “tens of thousands not hundreds of thousands”. However, they have also conceded that consultation with business and industry will be necessary prior to fixing an actual figure for the number of permitted immigrants. Before a final limit on non-EU immigration can be imposed, the new government may also have to implement a system which ensures that British workers are sufficiently qualified to fill any gaps in the domestic labour market. It is these gaps in the UK’s skill base that have traditionally been filled by workers from overseas.
Neither the consultation nor the “training up” of British workers is likely to take place over night. Therefore it is likely to be some time before the Conservative Party’s promised cap on non-EU immigration is implemented.