Johnson’s quiet shift to a more permissive migration policy

29 Oct

In the run up to last year’s general election, one of Boris Johnson’s most significant promises was to reduce immigration if the Conservatives won a majority. 

He spoke about the Government’s proposed new Australia-style points-based system, saying that “numbers will come down because we’ll be able to control the system”, adding that he felt it was not “right… to have an uncontrolled and unlimited approach”. 

With that being said, some may have been confused last week when the Home Office reduced its £35,8000 minimum salary threshold for migrants wanting to settle in the UK by almost 30 per cent – in a move that should surely boost numbers. 

The threshold was first introduced by Theresa May in 2011 when she was Home Secretary, and had been tasked with reducing net migration to below 100,000 (something that was never achieved, incidentally. Net migration to the UK has not been under that figure since 1997).

Under this Government, however, the net migration target has been abandoned, and now migrants on salaries of £20,480, but with enough points under a new Australian-style immigration system to take on jobs with occupational shortages, will be able to settle in Britain after six years to become citizens. 

The new rules come into effect on December 1, and follow the Home Office’s decision in January this year to scrap the £30,000 minimum salary threshold for people arriving after Brexit. 

Given May’s concern with numbers, the latest policy marks a significant shift for the Conservative Party on immigration, although it has created little noise in the media. Indeed, the change to the salary threshold was only spotted after Oxford University’s Migration Observatory went through a 507-word rule book, leading to accusations that changes to the threshold had “quietly slipped out”. 

So why is it that the Government has chosen to implement this policy? And what does it tell us about the future of immigration in the UK?

There are a number of perspectives you could have on the change of the salary threshold. The first is that it isn’t actually all that unexpected, given that thresholds for post-Brexit work visas were already lowered. 

As Sunder Katwala – Director of British Future – puts it on Twitter, the drop in threshold is “an obvious piece of tidying up”. It means that there won’t be such a big gap between someone’s salary and the increase they need to stay in the UK. It encourages citizenship, above anything else.

The next thing to say is that it gives the Government much more flexibility over skills shortages in the UK. The previous salary thresholds (£30,000 for getting a job and £35,000 to settle) were a blunt instrument to achieve net migration targets. There are lots of skilled workers the Government wants to attract to the UK, whose roles do not meet this salary threshold. The Australian-style system is much more nuanced, allowing the Government to make targetted decisions depending on the needs of the economy. 

The obvious counter argument to this, of course, is that the Government shouldn’t be recruiting from elsewhere; it should be getting UK citizens into jobs where there are shortages, particularly given how quickly unemployment is rising. This has been Donald Trump’s approach in America, who has essentially ground migration and travel to a halt in order to promote domestic employment.  It is also the thrust of Andrew Green’s articles on this site.

Even so, there has to be a degree of realism about the UK’s employment landscape. Take agriculture. Despite big recruitment campaigns to encourage domestic workers, the National Farmers Union revealed that only 11 per cent of seasonal workers in the 2020 were UK residents, and the country needs thousands more to come by next summer. In short, by lowering thresholds, the Government has much more flexibility to fill occupational shortages.

Migration Observatory has called the reduction in the threshold “the final nail in the coffin of the net migration target”, but the other point to bear in mind is that migration isn’t at the levels it once was because of the pandemic. As Katwala suggests on Twitter, the Government has accidentally hit May’s under 100,000 target. He says that from looking at the Office for National Statistics figures, “[N]et migration has almost certainly been negative this year.” 

Recent events, along with the fall in the pound (an unappealing prospect to workers wanting to be here for a few years, save up money and bring it back to their home country) have changed this area, and the Government will strategise accordingly.

And what does all this tell us about Johnson? It shows, at the very least, he has a completely different view on immigration to May, which was clear when he first abandoned net migration targets. He is averse to using numbers in this respect – perhaps viewing them as an arbitrary measure of how successful an immigration system is.

Many will see his latest policy as more evidence that he has been, and will always be, liberal on immigration. Throughout his career this has been apparent. 

During his time as the Mayor of London, for instance, he called for an “earned amnesty” for an estimated 400,000 people living illegally in London. He was particularly keen that they should be able to gain citizenship after years in the city.

More recently, the Government pledged to admit three million Hong Kong residents into the UK following China’s decision to impose new draconian security legislation.

And in September, the Prime Minister reversed a decision made by May (in 2012 – when she was Home Secretary) that forced oversea students to leave four months after they finished their degrees. They will now be able to stay in the UK for two years after graduation.

In losing the thresholds, Johnson is not only better able to make way for his policies on international students and those fleeing Hong Kong, but projecting his personal philosophy; his open attitude to immigration, and his commitment to fairness.

On the latter point, the new policies could be said to be an extension of the “levelling up” agenda, as the Government is creating parity on the requirements for EU and non-EU migrants coming to the UK (the former of which had more leniency under free movement).

Has Johnson fulfilled his pledge to “take back control”? It is a statement he has said repeatedly over the years. But talk to anyone, and it becomes obvious that there is no clear cut view on what he would do with that control if it was gained, as it now has been.

No doubt many voters saw immigration control as a numbers game, others say it is about “control over who comes in” – something afforded under the Australian points system. The Government seems to believe the new system will achieve both. Whatever the case, by all indications it’s a far more sophisticated way of managing UK immigration than salary thresholds.

David Simmonds: After six months of disruption, refugee resettlement must not be forgotten

5 Oct

David Simmonds is the MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner and the Conservative principal of the cross-party Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy Project (RAMP)

As chairman of the Local Government Association’s, Asylum, Migration and Refugee Task Group, I had a privileged insight into the efforts required to make a success of resettlement. The joined-up approach, with international agencies working with refugees in conflict areas, and local authorities receiving the necessary funding and support from the government, made a meaningful and lasting difference to people in need of protection and a new start.

Indeed, the UK’s refugee resettlement programme has been one of the quiet success stories of Conservative governments since 2015. By the end of last year, nearly 20,000 refugees displaced by the conflict in Syria were settled into communities across the country through the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS). Half of all those resettled have been vulnerable children. This has been achieved with strong community support, in contrast to the concerns provoked by trafficker-driven, illegal channel crossings.

Understandably, given the disruption to international travel and the unprecedented challenges facing the government and local authorities because of the pandemic, the resettlement scheme was paused in March, and the new Global Resettlement Scheme – under which various existing schemes will be brought together – has yet to launch.

However, the need for safe, legal, managed routes into the UK remains as important as ever. As we maintain our proud record of welcoming those in need, and address practical concerns regarding our borders, this is an opportunity for us to reflect on why the VPRS worked so effectively, with a view to resuming refugee resettlement at the earliest opportunity.

During the summer, the focus has been on the increasing number of people making the dangerous journey across the Channel, often at the mercy of criminal gangs exploiting their misery and desperation. We need to discourage people from making a journey that puts their lives at risk and undermines the legal processes by which people should come to this country and make it their home. Human traffickers prey on the misery and desperation of those seeking sanctuary and safety, and we must ensure that they cannot continue to profit in this way.

Along with my Conservative colleagues, I was elected on a manifesto that commits to granting asylum and support to refugees fleeing persecution. Much has changed since the general election, but it remains within our power to meet the commitment made to those who have experienced violence. Given that asylum claims can only be made by those who are physically in the UK, we need to offer safe, legal routes for people to come, rather than risk people arriving on small boats across the channel.

This is not, as it is often unhelpfully framed, a choice between compassion and robust management of our borders. Offering safe legal routes into the country is part of our commitment to protecting the most vulnerable. Resettlement allows us control over how many refugees come into the country, and the voluntary aspect of the scheme means local authorities can welcome people on the basis of their capacity and the particular needs of their community.

Crucially, we have shown over the past five years that we can resettle refugees successfully. The effective interaction between international agencies working with refugees on the ground and the coordination between national and local government led to a scheme described by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) as meeting the ‘gold standard’.

UNHCR selects people on the basis of need – with a particular focus on families, children at risk, and those who have survived violence or torture – and the International Organisation for Migration arranges their relocation. The Home Office considers referrals and matches them to participating local authorities, and the accommodation and support on arrival is offered by local authorities that have opted into the scheme and been given the necessary funding to house people and help them integrate smoothly into their new surroundings.

We know who is arriving, because applicants have been through a robust selection process on the ground and vetted by the Home Office, and there is a community ready to welcome them here in the UK. The voluntary nature of the scheme has meant that communities across the country, in urban and rural areas, have benefitted from the positive contribution of those who have resettled, are entitled to work immediately, and put their skills to good use. In areas where depopulation is a significant issue, the VPRS has provided an opportunity for local authorities to address the needs of their community, from unused housing, to dwindling workforces, to schools struggling to stay open because of declining pupil numbers.

This community participation and support makes resettlement considerably more effective than the dispersal scheme, under which destitute asylum seekers are not evenly spread around the country, live in cheap and often substandard accommodation, and are unable to work legally whilst they wait for their case to be determined. This situation simply wastes the skills of people who are here, and often does not garner community acceptance because of the disproportionate number of asylum seekers in certain local authorities and the lack of funding available to support them.

The recent fire at a migrant camp in Lesbos, which has left approximately 13,000 asylum seekers homeless, is a stark reminder that displacement is not an issue that will disappear as we confront other challenges. As France and Italy have resumed their refugee resettlement programmes, the moment has arrived for us to consider how we can contribute constructively through similar provision.

In 2015, when the resettlement scheme was extended rapidly in response to the growing humanitarian need, we demonstrated our ability to increase our support in difficult circumstances. Resuming resettlement now will allow us to support those in need, manage our borders effectively, and demonstrate our enduring commitment to tackling global challenges.

Ascension Island: a leak that tells us more about the inside of the Home Office than government policy

1 Oct

What have we learned from the recent rash of stories about Priti Patel’s decision to investigate setting up migration and asylum processing facilities on some of the UK’s more remote Atlantic possessions, St Helena and Ascension Island?

On the face of it, not all that much. Australia’s immigration system has loomed large in the British imagination for ages, and apart from the totemic ‘points-based immigration system’ one of the central planks of that system is offshore processing – in Australia’s case on the Manus Islands in Papua New Guinea and the tiny state of Nauru.

From the Government’s perspective, such a system has its advantages. It makes it harder for people in the system (or especially, who have been rejected) to slip the net and disappear into the population. It might perhaps also avoid complications that arise from trying to turn people away who have actually made it to British soil. And it is also, apparently, pretty popular with the public.

Even better, from the perspective of trying to find ‘wedge issues’ on which to fight the culture war, the plan has outraged all the right people. One doubts ministers will be too upset at headlines of the Opposition accusing them of being too tough on immigration.

Another reason we haven’t learned much is that this isn’t going to be official policy. The Ascension Island plan, like the more outlandish stuff about ‘wave machines’, was only ever a suggestion being explored, rather than a concrete proposal. Even without objections in principle, those particular toeholds of the Empire are likely too far away to be practical (although the Daily Mail reports that nearer-hand offshore options, including some of the British Islands or even disused ferries and oil rigs, were also considered).

It is almost inevitable that any ‘blue-sky’ thinking session is going to produce ideas that are impractical, embarrassing, or both. Indeed, if it doesn’t then people probably haven’t been getting into the spirit of the exercise. What we have learned, therefore, is that someone in the Home Office has decided to leak this stuff to the press.

One can just about imagine the Overseas Territories proposal being leaked by someone trying to look tough on immigration, but the presence of the rest suggests it wasn’t someone with Patel’s best interests at heart. This won’t do anything to improve the already fraught relationship between the Government and its officials.

Channel crossings are undermining the Government’s narrative about ‘taking back control’ of immigration

4 Sep

When Vote Leave promised to ‘take back control’, one of the issues at the top of the list was immigration. Leaving the EU meant ending freedom of movement and gaining the freedom to implement a points-based system which better reflected Britain’s national priorities.

This did not necessarily mean a draconian system – evidence suggested voters’ attitudes towards immigration actually got more liberal after the referendum – but that would be up to Parliament.

Yet only months after the electoral triumph of what has been called a ‘Vote Leave’ government, this narrative of control is being undermined by the toxic drip-feed of stories about migrant boats crossing the Channel.

Priti Patel clearly grasps that this is a problem, which is why we’re getting tough-sounding stories about calls to institute Royal Navy patrols and thwarting bids by ‘activist lawyers’ to prevent deportations. This morning she hit out at social media companies for allegedly failing to take action against people smugglers publicising their businesses online.

But it is less obvious what can actually be done. Patrolling the Channel invites the same problem as we see in the Mediterranean, wherein refugees located by the Italian Navy often put themselves into the water knowing the Italians won’t leave them there. Likewise footage of dingies arriving on the beach and their occupants disappearing inland may spark outrage, but the Home Office can’t really prevent that without erecting some sort of Atlantic Wall on the Kent coast.

Theresa May’s strategy was a more ‘defence in depth’ approach, with the Home Office drafting landlords and employers to help locate illegal entrants once they were in the UK – the ‘hostile environment’. The problem with this, setting aside the political challenges posed by the fallout from Windrush, is that without an effective detention and deportation system it risks just forcing people into the black economy.

This is all without getting into the possible difficulties posed by the above-mentioned ‘activist lawyers’, the courts, our membership of the ECHR, and so on, which Natalie Elphicke MP touched on in her article on the subject.

Usually Australia, which has been running ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ since 2013, is held up as the example to follow. But it enjoys some advantages Britain does not: it is outside some of the aforementioned legal structures; would-be ‘boat people’ face a much longer journey; and it has in Nauru a very handy offshore detention option unavailable to the Home Office (unless Sealand were interested).

Some of these problems are soluble. It should be fairly straightforward to legislate on the issue of traffickers exploiting social media, and Tim Loughton’s suggestion of using cruise ships as offshore detention facilities could be very timely given that the industry is facing a billion-dollar question about what to do with its mothballed vessels. Smoothing the legal pathway to deportation could also be including in whatever replaces the Government’s now-abandoned Constitution, Democracy, and Human Rights Commission.

But ultimately the Home Secretary is in a difficult position because the real keys to a lasting solution – new agreements with France and the other countries to which illegal entrants ultimately need to be deported – are not her department. But managing the day-to-day fallout is.

Paul Mercer: Police crime statistics need to be more intelligible and transparent

1 Sep

Cllr Paul Mercer is a councillor on Charnwood Borough Council and is the Lead Member for Housing in the Cabinet. He is writing in a personal capacity.

One of the more obvious ways of assessing police effectiveness is to look at crime statistics. Although, as the police are quick to point out, they do not necessarily reflect the amount of crime; only the willingness of the public to report crime.

There are some exceptions to this rule. Very few murders go unreported, and because insurance companies require a crime number, householders will also report burglaries. As a councillor representing a ward in the centre of a town, crime is one of the key issues for many residents. Over the years, we have found the easily-accessible data on the police.uk website a useful tool. It could be used both to put pressure on the police to deal with certain types of crime and also report on the success that they have had.

Until 2017, police.uk contained data going back to 2010 but the first five years were then deleted. Nicky Morgan, our MP at the time, raised the matter with the Home Office and, after a long delay, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, explained that the Data Police Application Program Interface (API) had been modified so it only presented data from the previous 36 months. “The decision to retain data for no longer than three years after receiving it from police forces was made in consultation with the Information Commissioner’s Office”, she explained, “and forms part of the Data Processing Agreement between the Home Office and their suppliers”. She further noted that “data should only be retained for as long as it is necessary and it was felt that three years was sufficient time to allow the complex and lengthy police investigations to result in final court proceedings so the outcome to the crime can be recorded accurately”.

The crime reports accessible on police.uk only indicate an approximate location and contain neither personal data nor identifying information. As such, there is no obvious reason why the ICO was involved given that its role is to protect personal data. On this basis, the ICO could credibly argue that electoral data should be limited after 36 months and nobody would know who had ever been elected. What was also not explained was why it was necessary to go to great lengths to record the data accurately and compile it, only to erase it after such a short period.

The Home Secretary helpfully added that although it had been decided to “retain data for no longer than three years” it was still possible to obtain this data via the archive which contains historic data back to 2010. This completely negated her point about not retaining data although, unhelpfully, there appears to be no reference to this archive on the ‘explore crimes’ section of the police.uk website.

In order to keep our residents aware of the crimes that were taking place in our ward in Loughborough, we would access police.uk, define its boundaries, and then take a note of the crimes which had occurred. However, when we last attempted to do this, we were informed that the service had been suspended in order to “prioritise providing access to key policing services to support the response to covid-19”. It would apparently be restored at some indeterminate time in the future. It is difficult to see how maintaining an API is taking manpower away from frontline policing.

The police.uk site does not state very clearly who owns and operates the site. The actual domain name is registered to Vodafone and it is only when you dig into the terms and conditions that it states that the ‘brand and the content’ is ‘owned’ by MOPAC. There is no link to this mysterious organisation which turns out to be the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime – part of the Greater London Authority.

In analysing the crime statistics over the past decade it was also apparent that, midway, the police decided to change the criteria by which they recorded statistics meaning that many of the older statistics were no longer relevant and it was difficult to make a proper comparison over a period of time. Although there were doubtless ‘operational’ reasons for this change it conveniently makes it difficult to make an objective comparison of how efficient or inefficient police forces are over a period of time. In terms of statistical significance many years of crime data are required in order to differentiate long term trends from short term factors.

The police.uk website proudly announces on its homepage that it exists to enable the public to “explore the latest crime statistics, find the force responsible in any area, read about how they are performing and what’s being done to tackle crime”. The website does contain a lot of useful information about the police and how they operate but it is failing to provide accurate crime data to enable the public and politicians to make objective long-term comparisons.

Rather than allowing access to this data to be controlled by the Mayor of London it would make far more sense for the Home Office to host a site which contained accurate data for the whole of the UK which could be easily accessed for the whole of the 10 years for which it is available. That way, it would be possible to make a formal objective comparison about how police forces are performing.

Daniel Pryor: Letting asylum seekers work is common-sense Conservatism

30 Jul

Daniel Pryor is Head of Programmes at the Adam Smith Institute.

Just over a year ago, former Home Secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament that “it is time for reform” of the outdated ban on asylum seekers working in the UK.

The world has hugely changed since then. But there remains an urgent need to allow asylum seekers to become less dependent on taxpayers, contribute to our economy, and support integration.

That’s why we at the Adam Smith Institute are proud members of the Lift the Ban Coalition: a group of over 200 businesses, trade unions, charities, think tanks and faith groups that campaign for the right to seek work for people seeking asylum.

In a new report, the coalition is calling for the Government to lower the waiting period before asylum seekers can work from one year to six months, as well as letting them apply for jobs outside the highly restrictive Shortage Occupation List (which includes classical ballet dancers and hydrogeologists).

Giving those seeking asylum the right to seek work – unconstrained by bureaucrats who think they understand the labour market better than British businesses – is common sense. Relaxing our current year-long work ban would promote integration with local communities, protect vulnerable people from forced labour, save the taxpayer money, and give asylum seekers the dignity of providing for themselves and their families.

The Home Office announced a review of the current policy 18 months ago, but have been silent since. Unfortunately, Home Office delays are a big part of the problem with our asylum system. By March 2020, the majority of people (31,516) waiting for a decision on an asylum claim were doing so for more than six months: the highest number since public records began. Those awaiting the results are left struggling to support themselves and their families on just £5.66 a day.

Conservatives pride themselves on championing the dignity of work: the sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging that comes from gainful employment. This is something that many millions of us have come to appreciate the value of even more as vast swathes of the United Kingdom remain furloughed.

Frankly, it is cruel and counterproductive to deny that opportunity to asylum seekers who want to use their skills to help rebuild our economy. Sitting at home all day with no job and a meagre government-granted allowance – all in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic – is a challenge for anyone’s mental well-being.

It also makes it more difficult to successfully integrate into their local communities. Work would give asylum seekers the opportunity to meet and socialise with people, as well as a strong incentive to improve English language skills.

The economic case for reform is equally compelling. Our latest estimates show that lifting the work ban could save taxpayers £98 million through more income tax receipts and less asylum support payments. Previous research on the effects of work bans also points to a potential reduction in crime from lifting the ban: hardly a surprise for conservatives who recognise the link between labour market opportunities and crime.

Other developed countries seem to recognise the benefits, and the UK remains an international outlier on its waiting periods: Australia, Canada and many European countries have far less restrictive rules.

Critics raise concerns that allowing asylum seekers to work would encourage more to come to Britain. But worries about creating such a ‘pull factor’ are not based on real-world experience. A systematic review of research into the relationship between labour market access for asylum seekers and overall numbers failed to find a single study showing a long-term relationship. This should hardly be surprising – most asylum seekers aren’t even aware that they are banned from working upon arrival in the UK, never mind the idea that they base their decision on such information.

Most Brits are rightly unconvinced by the ‘pull factor’ argument. Reform has proven to be consistently popular with the electorate and UK businesses. Survation polling has found that a remarkable 71 per cent of the public believe lifting the ban would help integration, while more than two-thirds of business leaders are supportive of the change.

Lifting the ban is also in keeping with this Government’s wider approach to immigration policy. The Prime Minister has already scrapped the notorious ‘tens of thousands’ target, revived the post-study work visa, and mandated lower, looser salary thresholds in our post-Brexit immigration system. Following these sensible changes with asylum working reform would be a welcome instance of consistency from the Government.

If we’re serious about rebooting Britain post-Covid, we should let asylum seekers work. People from many different political backgrounds support reform, but the key arguments in favour are most familiar to Conservatives. If this Government continually denies access to paid work in favour of state handouts, maintains barriers to integration, and hobbles our vulnerable economy with unnecessary red tape – what is the point of the Conservative Party?

Daniel Pryor: Letting asylum seekers work is common-sense Conservatism

30 Jul

Daniel Pryor is Head of Programmes at the Adam Smith Institute.

Just over a year ago, former Home Secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament that “it is time for reform” of the outdated ban on asylum seekers working in the UK.

The world has hugely changed since then. But there remains an urgent need to allow asylum seekers to become less dependent on taxpayers, contribute to our economy, and support integration.

That’s why we at the Adam Smith Institute are proud members of the Lift the Ban Coalition: a group of over 200 businesses, trade unions, charities, think tanks and faith groups that campaign for the right to seek work for people seeking asylum.

In a new report, the coalition is calling for the Government to lower the waiting period before asylum seekers can work from one year to six months, as well as letting them apply for jobs outside the highly restrictive Shortage Occupation List (which includes classical ballet dancers and hydrogeologists).

Giving those seeking asylum the right to seek work – unconstrained by bureaucrats who think they understand the labour market better than British businesses – is common sense. Relaxing our current year-long work ban would promote integration with local communities, protect vulnerable people from forced labour, save the taxpayer money, and give asylum seekers the dignity of providing for themselves and their families.

The Home Office announced a review of the current policy 18 months ago, but have been silent since. Unfortunately, Home Office delays are a big part of the problem with our asylum system. By March 2020, the majority of people (31,516) waiting for a decision on an asylum claim were doing so for more than six months: the highest number since public records began. Those awaiting the results are left struggling to support themselves and their families on just £5.66 a day.

Conservatives pride themselves on championing the dignity of work: the sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging that comes from gainful employment. This is something that many millions of us have come to appreciate the value of even more as vast swathes of the United Kingdom remain furloughed.

Frankly, it is cruel and counterproductive to deny that opportunity to asylum seekers who want to use their skills to help rebuild our economy. Sitting at home all day with no job and a meagre government-granted allowance – all in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic – is a challenge for anyone’s mental well-being.

It also makes it more difficult to successfully integrate into their local communities. Work would give asylum seekers the opportunity to meet and socialise with people, as well as a strong incentive to improve English language skills.

The economic case for reform is equally compelling. Our latest estimates show that lifting the work ban could save taxpayers £98 million through more income tax receipts and less asylum support payments. Previous research on the effects of work bans also points to a potential reduction in crime from lifting the ban: hardly a surprise for conservatives who recognise the link between labour market opportunities and crime.

Other developed countries seem to recognise the benefits, and the UK remains an international outlier on its waiting periods: Australia, Canada and many European countries have far less restrictive rules.

Critics raise concerns that allowing asylum seekers to work would encourage more to come to Britain. But worries about creating such a ‘pull factor’ are not based on real-world experience. A systematic review of research into the relationship between labour market access for asylum seekers and overall numbers failed to find a single study showing a long-term relationship. This should hardly be surprising – most asylum seekers aren’t even aware that they are banned from working upon arrival in the UK, never mind the idea that they base their decision on such information.

Most Brits are rightly unconvinced by the ‘pull factor’ argument. Reform has proven to be consistently popular with the electorate and UK businesses. Survation polling has found that a remarkable 71 per cent of the public believe lifting the ban would help integration, while more than two-thirds of business leaders are supportive of the change.

Lifting the ban is also in keeping with this Government’s wider approach to immigration policy. The Prime Minister has already scrapped the notorious ‘tens of thousands’ target, revived the post-study work visa, and mandated lower, looser salary thresholds in our post-Brexit immigration system. Following these sensible changes with asylum working reform would be a welcome instance of consistency from the Government.

If we’re serious about rebooting Britain post-Covid, we should let asylum seekers work. People from many different political backgrounds support reform, but the key arguments in favour are most familiar to Conservatives. If this Government continually denies access to paid work in favour of state handouts, maintains barriers to integration, and hobbles our vulnerable economy with unnecessary red tape – what is the point of the Conservative Party?

Tony Smith: In over 40 years of Home Office experience, I can’t recall a time when our borders have been under so much pressure

17 Jul

Tony Smith is a former Head of the UK Border Force and Director of Ports and Borders in both the UK and Canada. He is now Managing Director of Fortinus Global Ltd, an international border security company, and Chairman on the International Border Management and Technologies Association.

In 2017, Charlie Elphicke, then MP for Dover and Deal, posted in these pages about how Britain needed to be Ready on Day One to meet the Brexit borders challenge.

At that time, he expected Day One to fall in March 2019 – allowing us around 18 months to commence work on the biggest border transformation programme ever seen in this country. He advocated a range of measures, particularly in the port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel, which account for 40 per cent of our trade with the EU.

Many of Elphicke’s proposals for new investment in roads, lorry parks, port infrastructure and IT upgrades in Kent were foreseeable from the day Britain voted to leave the EU in June 2016. I worked closely with him and others to develop a workable border transformation proposal at that time, which we submitted to Ministers and presented to an APPG in Parliament.

Yet four years have elapsed – and only now are we seeing any real commitment from government to invest to upgrade our ports and borders to cope with the huge challenges ahead. This week, Michael Gove announced a £705 million spending package to help manage Britain’s borders to prepare for Brexit as the transition period (and free movement) ends on 31 December this year.

It has been criticised by Labour as being “too little too late”. In response to industry concerns and COVID-19 delays, the Government has also announced that “full import controls” will be “phased in”, and not fully implemented until July 2021; prompting claims from Liz Truss that the UK could be left open to legal challenge and smuggling.

Meanwhile, we have seen a record daily total of irregular migrants crossing the channel from France, and Priti Patel has announced a new “points based” immigration system, which is set to commence on 1 January next year, requiring EU citizens to get permission to enter and remain in the UK for the first time in 40 years.

In over 40 years’ experience in the Home Office, I cannot recall a time when the UK Border has been under this degree of pressure on all fronts at the same time – immigration policy, customs infrastructure, and border security.

The only saving grace for the Border Force is the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic has reduced traffic at our ports to a trickle, at a time when we would simultaneously be facing up to new record volumes and the usual criticisms from ports and airports about queues and delays at the UK Border.

Even so, the hasty implementation of a quarantine measure at the UK Border – and the rapid relaxation of it to cater for the holiday season – has not inspired confidence, either from the transportation industry or from the Border Force officers themselves.

Brexit and the ending of free movement provides the Government with unparalleled opportunities to build the “world class” border that it aspires to. But border transformation programmes take time and require careful handling. We do not have a great track record of delivering major IT and infrastructure changes at the UK border.

Key factors identified in the past that have led to programme failures include a lack of clear vision and direction, inconsistent leadership, ineffective public/private sector engagement, and governance. It is vital that we learn these lessons now.

Of course, this commitment to fund new infrastructure at our major ports of entry is welcome; and better late than never. The opportunities available for turning our major ports into global trading hubs, building freeports, implementing “drive through” and “walk through” borders based on advanced data analytics and risk assessments are all within reach. But it would be wrong to underestimate the enormity of the challenge ahead.

Setting out a vision is one thing; turning it into an operational reality is another thing entirely. Having been Senior Responsible Owner for the UK Border Agency’s London 2012 Programme for over three years, I know that this will only work if the government can build a cross Whitehall Programme that actively engages with the myriad of Departments and Agencies with a stake in the UK Border, ranging from the Home Office and HMRC through to Transport, Health, DEFRA and the like.

Of course, there will be the familiar tensions between facilitation and control; people and goods; compliance and regulation. These were always there. But taking a narrow view that HMRC “does goods” and Home Office “does people” no longer works, especially in the UK where we have a joint Border Force doing both.

There are some encouraging signs that the Cabinet Office is taking greater control over border-related projects, rather than simply acting as a co-ordinator between departments. But the fact that HMRC has issued a “Border Operating Model” claiming to cover “all of the processes and systems, across all government departments, that will be used at the border”, without any cross reference to an announcement from the Home Office on the same day setting out the “Border of the Future” “with new processes, biometrics and technology” as part of the new points- based immigration system is a case in point.

If we are to retain a single UK Border Force to operate the new rules, then we need to consolidate the strategic, policy and programme arms behind them.

To succeed, Whitehall will need to galvanise the very best people, systems, and processes into a fully functional Border Transformation Programme. This means bringing the key contributors to economic revival including the ports, transportation companies, traders and the world class technology suppliers to the table; and uniting them behind a common purpose to end free movement and implement to build the world class border we all want.

And to expect to deliver all this against a specific “Day One” deadline set by politicians – be it in January or June 2021 – is prone to failure, as history has shown us.