The Law Society Gazette
Immigration: political football

UK citizens will soon go to the polls. An issue central to many voters, and consequently to those seeking office, is immigration.

Public concern surrounding immigration has been on the rise for some time and politicians have attempted to use this to their advantage. Unfortunately, this has seen the issue bandied about and politicised to the point of toxicity. Moreover, though many of the proposed policies run parallel to populist fears, often those fears do not reflect the UK's economic, cultural and social realities.

Since coming to power, the Conservative immigration platform has been guided by its pledge to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands by the next parliament. To do this, the government has introduced a series of changes to the immigration system, severely limiting opportunities for nationals from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland to work, study, or live in the UK.

The Conservatives have been unable to make good on this promise, with annual net migration at nearly 250,000 and EEA migration on the rise too. Although they have successfully reduced migration from outside the EU, they are powerless to effect meaningful change to the free movement of nationals from within. David Cameron has pledged to renegotiate the UK's relationship with the EU and have an in-out referendum on membership by 2017.

Should the Conservative party be re-elected, Cameron has pledged to do the following:

Cameron's plans to renegotiate the terms of the UK's membership of the EU have been criticised at home and abroad. Many experts have stressed that arbitrary caps on EU migration would be illegal under present law and likely require a full treaty negotiation among EU members.

While most member states want the UK to remain in the union, there appears to be a clear line they will not cross with regard to scuttling or reforming free movement. As such, two of the more radical ideas - an 'emergency brake' and/or a temporary cap on EU migration - have been dismissed.

It should also be pointed out that, were the UK to leave the EU, it would almost certainly have detrimental effects on the estimated 1.4 to 2.2 million Brits presently taking advantage of free movement in EU member states.

Labour has been roundly panned for its immigration policies of the 1990s and 2000s. In particular, the decision immediately to open the UK to citizens from the A8 countries in 2004 has been the subject of much criticism and even forced a mea culpa from Ed Miliband.

Election coverage 2015 As part of its election campaign, Labour proposes:

Although Miliband has made it clear the UK should remain in the EU, he has also stated that he would not be against requesting changes to EU treaties to amend free movement among member states. Such changes could include longer transitional periods for new member states before their citizens could exercise free movement to the UK; an end to certain child benefits for children living overseas; and a longer waiting period before new migrants can access the UK's social service benefits.

Liberal Democrats
The Lib Dems have had a challenging four years as part of the coalition. While the Conservatives have directed most policy decisions, the Lib Dems have often been blamed for failures and unrecognised for achievements. Last August party leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg outlined a number of changes his party would like to see, including:

Given the party's low poll ratings, it would seem that the best-case general election outcome would be the opportunity to form a new coalition government with the victor. However, in such a hypothetical scenario, the Lib Dems' ability to enact policies aligned with their values would vary dramatically depending on the party affiliation of their coalition partner.

In 2014 Ukip won two byelections and nearly beat Labour in Heywood and Middleton. The party also scored heavily in the European parliament and UK council elections last May.

According to Ukip, immigration is 'crippling local services in the UK' and must be controlled to relieve pressure on healthcare, education, housing and welfare systems. Though it claims to recognise 'the benefits of limited, controlled immigration', Ukip's platform consists primarily of unworkable, anti-immigration, and Eurosceptic rhetoric, including:

These proposals would amount to a complete overhaul of the UK's immigration system, and Ukip's opponents argue, be seriously detrimental to the UK.

False perceptions
While general concerns over immigration have risen since the early 2000s, specific concerns, such as the fear that there are 'too many immigrants', do not neatly correlate with the actual increase in migrant numbers.

An Ipsos MORI survey found Britons are 'massively wrong' on a significant number of aspects of immigration. For example:

This suggests that, while most people have no issue with the immigrants who live near them, there is a perception that severe problems exist in most of the rest of the country.

Remarkably, the most common response among those surveyed when provided with the correct figures was not to believe them.

Last October, when speaking at a car plant in London, Cameron stated: 'I'm very clear about who the boss is, about who I answer to, and it's the British people. They want this issue fixed, they are not being unreasonable about it, and I will fix it.'

However, as the Ipsos MORI poll illustrates, the stark reality remains that 'the boss' is often deeply misinformed as to key facts about immigration.

Stop playing games
Should navigation of the political landscape continue to be guided by a misunderstanding of the facts, the direct route to intelligent and effective policy may be lost for a generation or more.

It is therefore vital that politicians, a group whose vision of the future is often limited to the sharp edges of the next election, put forward policies that reflect reality. They must stop chasing short-term electoral gains and focus on long-term social goods. Indeed, they must stop playing the immigration game.

Laura Devine, Laura Devine Solicitors

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