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Immigration and asylum policy: the Coalition Government's plans

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UK Parliament House of Commons Library
Summary: 
18 Jan 2011: This House of Commons Library paper summarises recent Government statements about its intentions for immigration and asylum policy, and specific changes which it has already introduced.

HOUSE OF COMMONS LIBRARY

Immigration and asylum policy: the Coalition Government's plans

Standard Note: SN/HA/5829

Last updated: 18 January 2011

Author: Melanie Gower

Section Home Affairs Section

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This information is provided to Members of Parliament in support of their parliamentary duties and is not intended to address the specific circumstances of any particular individual. It should not be relied upon as being up to date; the law or policies may have changed since it was last updated; and it should not be relied upon as legal or professional advice or as a substitute for it. A suitably qualified professional should be consulted if specific advice or information is required.

This information is provided subject to our general terms and conditions which are available online or may be provided on request in hard copy. Authors are available to discuss the content of this briefing with Members and their staff, but not with the general public.

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The Coalition Agreement committed the Government to introducing annual limits on non-EU economic migration. These are due to come into effect from April 2011. The Government intends to achieve an overall reduction in net migration levels over the course of this Parliament. Consequently, all other immigration categories and routes to permanent settlement are also under review.

By minimising opportunities for abuse and being more selective about the criteria for entry, the Government believes that it will be able to reduce overall net migration levels, whilst simultaneously protecting the UK's economic interests and attracting more of the 'brightest and best' migrants whose presence is deemed to be most beneficial to the UK.

This note briefly summarises recent Government statements about its intentions for immigration and asylum policy, and specific changes which it has already introduced. Many of the Government's proposals (particularly those aimed at minimising abuse) are in a similar vein to measures adopted by Labour in the run-up to the 2010 general election, though the proposed numerical limits for economic migrants and Border Police Force are notable differences.

This note focuses on objectives set by the Home Office and its Executive Agency, the UK Border Agency. It should be noted that measures being proposed by other government departments (such as Ministry of Justice-led reforms to civil legal aid) will also have a direct effect on persons within the immigration and asylum system.

Contents
1 The Government's plans: the big picture
2 Specific proposals for change
2.1 Economic migration
2.2 Students
2.3 Family migration
2.4 Moving between temporary and permanent migration
2.5 Asylum
2.6 Addressing illegal immigration
2.7 Promoting integration
2.8 EU migration and cooperation with EU policymaking
3 Monitoring Government actions: some useful sources

1 The Government's plans: the big picture

The first indication of the Coalition Government's thinking on immigration and asylum was in the May 2010 Coalition Agreement document:

The Government believes that immigration has enriched our culture and strengthened our economy, but that it must be controlled so that people have confidence in the system. We also recognise that to ensure cohesion and protect our public services, we need to introduce a cap on immigration and reduce the number of non EU immigrants. [1]

The Coalition Agreement listed some particular actions which the Government intended to take in light of this objective (referred to in section 2 below).

Subsequent Ministerial speeches and statements have explained the Government's policy rationale in greater detail.

In a speech made on 7 September 2010, Damian Green, the Minister for Immigration, signalled his intention to avoid pitfalls of immigration policy debates of the past. He highlighted his desire to develop measures which are "smart" rather than simply "tough", and influenced by evidence rather than "emotion and prejudice." Setting out the considerations which would inform future immigration policymaking, the Minister said:

The real question ... is not how many, or where are they from. It is how can Britain benefit most from immigration? What controls do we need to maximise those benefits and minimise the strains? (...)

This balance is at the heart of this government's approach to immigration. Britain benefits from immigration, and has always benefited from immigration, but it will only continue to do so if it is properly controlled. This means that the unsustainable levels of net migration seen in recent years must be brought down.

The Prime Minister has identified the sustainable level of immigration as an annual rate of net migration in the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands. (...) How do we get from where we are now to a position where we can continue to attract at least our fair share of the brightest and the best to study and work here, without putting unacceptable levels of pressure on our public services and the ability of our society to absorb change? [2]

Drawing on Home Office research findings, which traced the path of persons who had previously entered the UK and those who had obtained permanent settlement, the Minister identified some of the "policy prescriptions" which the Government was considering. [3] In particular, he pointed to a need to apply "steady downward pressure on many routes to long-term immigration."

This was reiterated in the Home Secretary's speech on immigration, made on 5 November 2010. Arguing that immigration under Labour had been "out of control", the Home Secretary set out why the Government wanted to reduce net migration levels:

Between 1997 and 2009, net migration to Britain totalled more than 2.2 million people. That is more than twice the population of Birmingham. (...)

And public confidence has been undermined further by the individual stories of abuse of the system. (...)

While the right type of immigration can stimulate growth, badly managed migration has led to serious social impacts in some areas, with pressure being placed on key public services such as schools, the health service, transport, housing and welfare.

And it also led to many more difficult to quantify social impacts, like the segregation we see in too many of our communities. This created community tensions and helped contribute to a society that is not as integrated as we would like. [4]

The Home Secretary repeated the Government's pledge to reduce net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands, and argued that it was possible to do so without damaging the UK's economic interests. Theresa May said that by being more selective about the criteria for entry, "we can attract more of the brightest and the best at the same time as we reduce the overall number."

Some more detailed proposals (referred to in section 2 below) were made in her oral statement on controlling migration on 23 November 2010. [5]

The UK Border Agency (UKBA)'s budget is being reduced by up to 20 per cent over the next four years, and its headcount will fall by around 5,200. [6] It intends to make a greater use of technology and computer-based systems in order to improve its efficiency and productivity. [7]

2 Specific proposals for change

2.1 Economic migration

The Coalition Agreement stated:

We will introduce an annual limit on the number of non-EU economic migrants admitted into the UK to live and work. We will consider jointly the mechanism for implementing the limit. [8]

In July 2010 the Government introduced temporary limits on the number of highly skilled and skilled workers who could enter the UK under Tiers 1 and 2 of the points-based system. [9] Library standard note SN/HA/5680 Annual limits for non-EEA economic migration contains background information. [10]

Following a public consultation, on 23 November 2010 the Government announced details of the annual limits on economic migration which are intended to come into effect from April 2011. [11] Put briefly, the Government has decided to prioritise the entry of workers who already have a job offer over those that do not. In consequence, the Tier 1 (General) visa, which enabled highly skilled migrants to enter the UK without a job offer, will be abolished. The Government considers that this visa category has not succeeded in attracting highly skilled workers. It has published research indicating that many Tier 1 migrants are unemployed or working in low-skilled occupations in the UK. [12]

A new visa category will be established within Tier 1 for "people of exceptional talent." This is intended to cater for "scientists, academics and artists who have achieved international recognition, or are likely to do so." 1,000 visas will be available annually in this category.

There will be no limit on the number of investor and entrepreneur visas available, and the Government intends to adopt new measures to encourage more of them to come to the UK.

20,700 visas will be available under Tier 2 (which is for skilled workers with an offer of employment). Tier 2 will be restricted to 'graduate-level' jobs. Intra-company transfers will be excluded from the annual limits, but will be subject to a minimum salary threshold of £24,000. Only persons earning above £40,000 will be able to stay in the UK on an intra-company transfer for over 12 months.

2.2 Students

In her November 2010 speech on immigration the Home Secretary stated:

We will follow exactly the same principle as in the skilled work route – a more selective approach, which attracts the highly skilled, the talented and the genuinely needed, but reduces numbers overall by weeding out those who do not deserve to be allowed in. [13]

The majority of non-EU migrants enter the UK as students. The Government has acknowledged that a reduction in student visas will be needed in order to reduce net migration levels. It intends that in the future, the number of international students entering the UK will be broadly in line with the number leaving. It will be emphasised that student visas are a form of temporary migration rather than a route to permanent residence. [14] It is likely that the Tier 1 (Post Study Work) visa, which enabled foreign graduates from UK universities to remain in the UK after graduation to look for work, will be abolished.

The risk of abuse of student visas (e.g. by persons who primarily wish to live and work rather than study in the UK) is considered by the Government to be higher amongst persons entering to study low-level courses and at privately funded colleges. The Government has questioned how beneficial these types of student migration are to the UK.

By being more selective about the criteria for entry as a student, the Government considers that it will be able to minimise abuse and reduce the overall number of student visas without damaging the UK's interests. Specific proposals for change were published in December 2010. [15] The suggestions include restricting the range of courses available to foreign students, limiting their entitlements to work and bring family members to the UK, restricting their opportunities to extend their studies or 'switch' into a work immigration category after entry, and introducing stricter accreditation requirements for education providers. These are generally building on similar reforms previously introduced by the Labour Government. [16]

2.3 Family migration

In her November 2010 speech the Home Secretary confirmed:

As well as tackling abuse of the marriage route we need to ensure that those who come here can integrate successfully into society and play a part in their local community. [17]

The Government is repealing the legislation underpinning the 'certificate of approval' scheme, which was introduced by the Labour Government in a bid to deter sham marriages but had been found by the courts to be unlawful. [18] The Government has indicated that it intends to take other measures to address sham marriages and to tighten the rules for entry as the spouse of a person settled in the UK, although it has not yet published detailed proposals. The Home Secretary has indicated that consideration is being given to extending the probationary period which foreign spouses must complete before being eligible to apply for permanent settlement in the UK beyond two years (as is currently the case). [19] She has also raised the possibility of additional enquiries being made into the UK sponsor's ability to meet the accommodation and maintenance requirements for spouse visas. [20]

In November 2010 a new requirement was introduced into the Immigration Rules: that persons applying for leave to enter or remain as the spouse or partner of someone settled in the UK must demonstrate a basic command of English (speaking and listening), equivalent to level A1 on the Common European Framework of Reference for languages, by taking a test approved by the UKBA. [21] The Government considers that this will "protect the economic well-being of the UK, for example by encouraging integration and protecting public services." [22] The Labour Government had previously announced similar plans, scheduled to come into effect from summer 2011. [23]

2.4 Moving between temporary and permanent migration

The Home Secretary stated in November 2010:

Settling in Britain should be a cherished right, not an automatic add on to a temporary way in. [24]

The Government considers that under the present system, it is "too easy" for migrants to move from temporary residence to permanent settlement in the UK. Towards the end of its time in office, the Labour Government was also proposing measures to break the link between temporary and permanent immigration and to restrict migrants' opportunities for settling in the UK, in particular through its 'earned citizenship' policy. The Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 made the legislative changes necessary for 'earned citizenship', however rather than implementing these changes, the Government intends to develop and consult on proposals of its own. [25] The Government indicated in November 2010 that it would consult on changing the route to settlement "in due course" but that in the meantime, with effect from April 2011, it would seek to introduce some interim changes to the current criteria for granting permanent settlement. [26] These are likely to include new requirements in relation to unspent criminal convictions, minimum salary criteria for economic migrants, and competence in English.

2.5 Asylum

The Coalition Agreement stated:

We will explore new ways to improve the current asylum system to speed up the processing of applications. [27]

As part of an 'Asylum Improvement Project' launched in summer 2010, a range of pilot schemes for improving the speed, quality, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the asylum determination process are being tested, with a view to being implemented nationally where appropriate by December 2011. [28]

Following a July 2010 Supreme Court decision, the UKBA has published guidance for its caseowners on how to assess asylum claims based on the applicants' sexual orientation and/or gender identity. This reflects a Coalition Agreement commitment not to enforce the removal of asylum seekers who would be at risk of persecution on account of their sexual orientation. Library standard note SN/HA/5618 Asylum: Claims based on sexual identity provides background information.

Details of the Government's plans to end child detention for immigration purposes (another commitment made in the Coalition Agreement) were announced on 16 December 2010. Library standard note SN/HA/5591 Ending child immigration detention has further details.

2.6 Addressing illegal immigration

The Government confirmed its support for e-Borders and the reintroduction of exit checks in the Coalition Agreement. e-Borders was launched under Labour with cross-party support. [29]

The Coalition Agreement also committed the Government to establishing a dedicated Border Police Force, an idea which the Labour Government had previously rejected. Some further details of the Government's plans were set out in the Home Office consultation paper Policing in the 21st Century. [30] The Government believes that establishing a Border Police Command, as part of a new National Crime Agency, will improve coordination of border control and security operations.

2.7 Promoting integration

In addition to the measures already introduced for foreign spouses, the Home Office intends to review English language requirements for other immigration categories (with a view to making them more demanding), in a bid to promote integration. [31]

In summer 2010 the Department for Communities and Local Government confirmed that the Migration Impacts Fund, which provided funding for local community projects to manage the transitional impacts of immigration, would be terminated. [32]

2.8 EU migration and cooperation with EU policymaking

EU migrants' rights to enter and live in the UK are governed by European law rather than domestic legislation, so are unaffected by Government moves to reduce net immigration. The Coalition Agreement stated that in the event of future EU enlargement, the Government would seek to impose transitional controls on new Member States' freedom of movement rights. [33]

In relation to EU cooperation on asylum and immigration matters, the Government has taken decisions to 'opt-in' to measures where it is deemed to be in the UK's best interests to do so (as the Labour Government also did), but indicated that its preference is for measures which enhance "practical cooperation" between Member States rather than further legislation. [34]

3 Monitoring Government actions: some useful sources

Whilst the Home Office and the UKBA take the lead on immigration and asylum policymaking, it is also worth bearing in mind that policymaking in other Government departments, notably the Ministry of Justice, may also have a direct bearing on persons in the immigration and asylum system. [35]

Specific immigration and asylum policy objectives, and their timetable for implementation, are recorded in the Home Office Business Plan 2011 – 2015.

Regular announcements on immigration and asylum policy and details of public consultations on related policy proposals are published on the UK Border Agency website.

The Home Affairs Committee frequently takes evidence from the Home Secretary, Immigration Minister and senior UK Border Agency staff on issues relating to immigration and asylum policy and practice. Transcripts of evidence can be accessed from the Committee's website pages. The Committee has already published a report based on its inquiry into the Government's proposed 'immigration cap' (limits to economic migration), and is currently conducting an inquiry into the impact of the Government's proposals for limiting Tier 4 (student) migration. From time to time other Parliamentary Committees undertake inquiries which address related issues.

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[1] HM Government, The Coalition: Our programme for government, May 2010, ref: 401238/0510.
[2] Home Office, Damian Green's speech: the real immigration question, 7 September 2010
[3] Home Office, Research report 43 The Migrant Journey, September 2010
[4] Home Office, The Home Secretary's immigration speech, 5 November 2010
[5] HC Deb 23 November 2010 c169
[6] HC Deb 24 November 2010 c301W
[7] HC Deb 22 November 2010 c75W
[8] HM Government, The Coalition: Our programme for government, May 2010, ref: 401238/0510
[9] HC 59 and HC 96 of 2010-11
[10] See also standard note SN/HA/5752 Immigration: Intra-company transfers
[11] HC Deb 23 November 2010 c169-186
[12] UKBA, Points-based system Tier 1: an operational assessment, 16 November 2010
[13] Home Office, The Home Secretary's immigration speech, 5 November 2010
[14] UKBA, The student immigration system: a consultation, December 2010, paras 2.9-2.10
[15] UKBA, The student immigration system: a consultation, December 2010
[16] See Library standard note SN/HA/5349 Immigration: international students and Tier 4 of the points-based system
[17] Home Office, The Home Secretary's immigration speech, 5 November 2010
[18] Library standard note SN/HA/3780 Getting married in the United Kingdom: the rules for people subject to immigration control contains background information.
[19] HC Deb 23 November 2010 c170
[20] Home Office, The Home Secretary's immigration speech, 5 November 2010
[21] Cm 7944 of 2010-11
[22] HC Deb 30 November 2010 c770-1W
[23] UKBA website [National Archive version], Earning the right to stay: A new points test for citizenship, July 2009
[24] Home Office, The Home Secretary's immigration speech, 5 November 2010
[25] UKBA update, Government announcement on settlement reforms, 5 November 2010
[26] HC Deb 30 November 2010 c771W
[27] HM Government, The Coalition: Our programme for government, May 2010, ref: 401238/0510
[28] See HC Deb 15 November 2010 c545-6W for further details. Implementation timetable as per Home Office Business Plan 2011-2015, November 2010.
[29] See Library standard note SN/HA/5771 The e-borders programme.
[30] Home Office, Policing in the 21st Century: reconnecting people and the police, 26 July 2010, para 4.42 – 4.43
[31] Home Office, The Home Secretary's immigration speech, 5 November 2010
[32] See Library standard note SN/HA/5725 Migration Impacts Fund.
[33] HM Government, The Coalition: Our programme for government, May 2010, ref: 401238/0510
[34] HC Deb 9 December 2010 c43-46WS
[35] E.g. Ministry of Justice, Proposals for the Reform of Legal Aid in England and Wales, November 2010