As the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats approach the halfway point of their term in office, many of their pledges on immigration have been broken or forgotten. There has been little progress on the policies outlined in section 17 of the Coalition's programme for government. Ideas supposedly shared by the coalition partners have been quietly abandoned to be replaced with ideas announced in Conservative manifestos and party conferences. This is particularly worrying given the democratic deficit that already surrounded changes to the Immigration Rules.
The coalition government’s flagship immigration policy was the introduction of a cap on non-EU migration. It was mentioned in the preamble of section 17 and was the first pledge to follow it. A cap was introduced but it only limited the entry of a very specific group of non-EU migrants and it was set high enough that it has never come close to being reached. Former immigration minister Damian Green quickly reverted to instead pledging to reduce net migration, a promise made in the Conservative party manifesto but which cannot be found in the coalition agreement. Net migration is a statistic that is difficult to calculate and the merits of reducing it are certainly debatable. It counts immigrants coming into the country and also those emigrating but does not look at the make-up of either group. A ‘brain drain’ would thus help the government reach its target, as would a reduction in the type of immigration it has endorsed as beneficial to the country.
The next pledge stated that children would not be detained for immigration purposes but they continue to be held in centres in the UK. The third pledge stated that a dedicated border police would be formed. The UK Border Force was separated from the UK Border Agency by Theresa May in early 2012, but more recently the government has begun contracting out immigration control to untested private providers. Pledge number four stated that exit checks would be reintroduced; however, the government was recently forced to admit that there were in excess of 150,000 non-EEA nationals whose whereabouts they did not know. No checks were made to see whether or not they had left the UK after the expiry of their visas.
Plans to apply transitional controls to all new EU member states will be implemented when Croatia joins in 2013. More recent rhetoric on restricting intra-EU migration has already been discussed and is, in all likeliness, pure hot air. Any attempt to scale back free movement would face serious political and legal hurdles.
Anyone working in or dealing with the UKBA will know that the final promise to speed up the processing of certain applications was a hollow one. Delays in processing postal applications have seen people waiting over six months for their passports to be returned to them, premium applications have become rarer than gold dust and those required to register with the police have been forced to queue through the night.
That politicians routinely break their promises is perhaps not surprising but the scant regard for the coalition agreement is particularly worrying in the field of immigration. Changes to Immigration Rules are not scrutinised by parliament in the same manner as primary legislation. Almost three hundred pages of written changes to rules were placed before parliament in July. The House of Lords was given a day to look at the changes, no debate was scheduled and the House of Commons was not even sitting. Ironically, these changes were supposed to amend a regime which had been the subject of judicial criticism in Alvi for lacking parliamentary oversight. If local MPs are unable to scrutinise changes and parties refuse to stick to their agreements, then it becomes difficult to see where democratic controls are impacting on immigration policy.