Priti Patel is an elected Member of the Conservative Party Board, the 1922 Committee’s Executive and the Public Administration Select Committee. She is also a member of the Party’s Policy Board and MP for Witham.
The monumental new Immigration Bill will be debated in the House of Commons on Tuesday, and Conservatives should celebrate the way we are transforming the immigration system for the better. This legislation will draw a clear dividing line between the positive actions Conservatives are taking in Government to control immigration and the shambolic, ineffective and failed system Labour presided over.
We should be proud of its measures to accelerate the deportation of foreign national criminals, clamp down on the abuse of the appeals system, and the action being taken to identify illegal immigrants residing here and those who have overstayed their welcome. The new charges that will apply to temporary migrants from outside Europe for using the NHS and the proposals to deport foreign criminals before hearing their appeals will send out a strong signal that Britain is no longer a soft touch.
This Bill also builds on the new controls and reforms to the immigration system which Conservatives have already implemented since the last General Election. The actions taken to deter sham marriages, limits on non-EU economic migrants, the abolition of the discredited UK Border Agency, restrictions on the family route and the clamp down on bogus students and colleges are all making a difference. Net migration is now a third lower than when Labour was in power. In fact, in 2012, the number of people migrating to the UK fell below half a million to 497,000 for the first time since 2001.
To put the significance of that fall into context, it is worth noting that when Labour came to office in 1997 there were 327,000 migrants coming to Britain. Under their open door approach, this number rose to a record 596,000 by 2006 and stayed above 560,000 in each year between 2004 and 2011. Much of that increase can be attributed to the failure to put transitional controls on the inflow of migrants from Eastern Europe and countries such as Poland when they joined the EU in 2004. Consequently, it is estimated that over three million immigrants came to live in the UK under Labour, many of whom may be entitled to receive benefits, and a further million illegal immigrants may have entered illegally.
This growth in immigrants effectively led to around three-quarters of the new jobs created in the economy going to people born overseas. The Office of National Statistics has since suggested that the UK population could increase to as much as 75 million by 2035, with the direct consequences of immigration accounting for two-thirds of that rise. Although immigration is not the only cause of pressures on our public services, employment, housing and infrastructure, it is a factor that any responsible Government cannot ignore. With the scale of devastation left by Labour and their irresponsible approach to immigration being so great, the challenges that have faced Conservatives in Government cannot be underestimated.
We need an immigration system that performs three core functions.
Firstly, it should let people come into Britain who can contribute positively to our economy and country, while determining applications for settlement and asylum promptly.
Secondly, it should have robust controls in place that limit numbers to a sensible level, prevents illegal immigrants from entering the UK and swiftly removes those who have no right to remain here. Wealth creators and entrepreneurs who want to invest in the UK should be welcomed, while those who come here as benefit tourists or who break our laws should be removed.
Thirdly, we need a system that has the confidence of the public.
I am pleased that we are moving towards that system and will be using a debate I have secured in Parliament this week on immigration controls to outline further measures that should remain high on the political agenda.
As a matter of priority, extensions to the transitional controls on Romanian and Bulgarian need to be investigated. In ten weeks time these will expire, and in 2014 the UK’s borders will be fully open to 29 million people from those countries. If only a small fraction of that number come here it will have a profound impact on this country. The experience of the wave of immigration from the A8 countries since 2004 has taught us that Britain is an attractive place for people from countries with lower average incomes to come to live and work. But Britain may not be able to sustain a further wave and the Government should be prepared to act.
The European rules on free movement of people also need to be reviewed, and the process of renegotiating the terms of our membership of the EU presents an opportunity to achieve a favourable outcome for Britain. The principle of the free movement of people across the EU to underpin the free market should not be used as an excuse for some to come here for a better life and contribute little or nothing back. Existing powers to ‘restrict the right of entry and right of residence on the grounds of public policy, public security and public health’ should also be more vigorously applied.
In addition to the measures in the Immigration Bill to deport illegal immigrants and reduce the number of decisions that can be appealed, we must speed up the deportation process. In my constituency, I am aware of a number of cases where immigrants have been informed that they have no right to remain in the UK but years later they are still here. Instead of being immediately removed, they have abused the system by lodging an endless stream of new applications and appeals. Persistent applicants must be blocked and once it is determined that an individual or family has no right to remain they should expect to be removed from the UK within a month and ideally sooner than that.
Likewise, serious and persistent foreign national offenders should expect to be immediately deported from this country at the conclusion of their custodial sentences. It is shocking to see that there are 25 foreign nationals subject to deportation orders for over ten years still in the UK, 2,300 for more than a year, and over 3,100 in total whom we are yet to deport. We should adopt a ‘from prison to plane’ approach as foreign killers, rapists, sex offenders, violent criminals and terrorists should not expect to be able to walk freely on British soil again.
Among the biggest barriers to introducing robust immigration controls are the Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights and the way these laws are interpreted by the courts. Some in the Council of Europe have even advocated that we start referring to those with no right to be in our country as ‘irregular migrants’ rather than ‘illegal immigrants’, while granting them even more rights to make it almost impossible to remove them. As a result of this approach, there appears to be too many incidents when decision-makers and judges seem to be going out their way to find excuses in human rights laws to allow dangerous individuals to remain in Britain.
The lengthy ordeal involved deporting Abu Qatada and the interference by the European Court of Human Rights is the most high profile of these cases, but there are many others. Not only do these cases in themselves damage the integrity of the immigration system, they serve to encourage other immigrants with no rights to remain in the UK and their lawyers to persist with spurious applications and appeals at great cost to the taxpayer.
While the Human Rights Act remains in place and the ECHR is able to meddle in our immigration system, our ability to control immigration and protect the public will continue to be undermined. As Conservatives, we must continue to strengthen immigration controls and challenge those who stand in the way of reforming human rights laws.