Conservative Modernisation 6: What does modernisation in Conservative immigration policy actually mean?By Rebecca Partos on 23 April 2015
It is not easy to explain what modernisation means when it comes to recent Conservative Party immigration policy. Is it a liberal approach based on factual evidence and expert opinion? Does it show a tolerant and moderate strategy in the ‘compassionate Conservatism’ mould? Or, more cynically, does it mean little more than a temporary change of tone? Or perhaps it simply depends where you look?
If you are an economic migrant, you are now subject to stricter regulation than ever before, as a result of efforts to bring down numbers to reassure a worried public. As of 2012, the government has been recording the nationalities of benefit claimants, seemingly to discourage ‘benefit tourists’, despite the fact that a government-commissioned study estimated that foreign-born workers are less likely to claim benefits than UK nationals.
The Coalition’s Immigration Act (2014) is intended to make the UK a more hostile environment for illegal immigrants. As a result, it is more difficult for illegal immigrants to open a bank account, apply for a driving licence, or rent privately. Foreign criminals will be deported first and allowed to appeal later, even though the government will have to fund travel expenditure for their return to the UK.
The detection (and reporting) of illegal immigrants is now the responsibility of more people than ever, from employers to landlords. This is an extension of previous Conservative legislation; the Immigration (Carriers’ Liability) Act of 1987 gave airlines and shipping companies the responsibility for ensuring passengers had the correct documentation. The penalties for failing to carry out such obligations have risen considerably.
Under the Conservative-led coalition, international students are required to be better educated, demonstrate a higher level of English language attainment and endure more complicated bureaucratic procedures to obtain a visa. Furthermore, international graduates no longer have the Tier 1 (post-study work) route open to them; they must leave the country once they graduate unless they have an offer of a skilled job from a sponsoring employer.
Student migration is a soft target because intervention in this category can reduce numbers significantly with little delay. The number of student visas has dropped 36% from 314,305 in 2009 to 218,773 in 2013. This is arguably a reversal of one of Margaret Thatcher’s quintessentially free-market measures. In 1981, she ended the public subsidy for international students: they had to pay the full tuition costs but the cap on international students was removed.
For those seeking family reunification, the process has become more difficult in recent years. Financial requirements (minimum annual income of £18,600) have been introduced for those who wish to bring a non-EU relative to the UK. More rigorous English language tests and ‘checks’ on marriages have been introduced, though the Conservatives have resisted efforts to reintroduce the infamous ‘primary purpose rule’.
Cutting immigration by restricting the family reunification route is nothing new. In the late 1990s the Conservatives pledged that migrants would have to declare dependents and, further back, the Party’s 1979 manifesto proposed a register of Commonwealth wives and children. Recent measures, however, have not only been promised but also delivered. While the changes to policy will make little difference to criminal gangs arranging fake marriages, individuals wanting to bring their (genuine!) partners or elderly parents with them are affected.
The Conservatives under Cameron have done little to alter asylum policy; the public are not unduly concerned. Perhaps, then, this provides evidence of at least some degree of modernisation: the Party has been paying less attention to issues which voters have little interest in.
There is, though, one policy intervention that fits neatly into the socially liberal modernisation agenda. In 2010, Cameron gave a personal assurance that gay and lesbian asylum seekers persecuted on account of sexual orientation would not be returned to their countries of origin. Unfortunately, there have been media reports of asylum seekers being returned to gay-unfriendly places.
So, has David Cameron moved in a more progressive direction than this predecessors as Tory leader? The answer would seem to be no. In 2005, when he took on the leadership, Cameron resolved to keep quiet on the issue. After nearly two years of virtual silence, in 2007 the Conservatives brought immigration back into play. Not only did they ramp up the rhetoric, they also advocated more restrictive measures. In time, even their emphasis on distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigration – an idea conceived to placate both traditionalists and modernisers and business backers – seems to have faded. Since entering government, and with UKIP breathing heavily down their necks, the Conservatives have talked and acted tough on immigration. This is modernisation muted.
Rebecca Partos is a PhD Student at the University of Sussex. She is the co-author of ‘Immigration and Asylum Policy under Cameron’s Conservatives’, appears in British Politics (with Professor Tim Bale).
This is the sixth in a series of blogs on Conservative Party modernisation, based on a selection of papers from the forthcoming special issue of British Politics on 'Conservative Modernisation From Opposition to Government'. The issue, which is edited by Peter Kerr, Steve Kettell and Richard Hayton, was the product of the 'Whatever Happened to Conservative Modernisation' workshop event hosted by the University of Leeds in September 2014, and organised jointly by the PSA Conservatives and Conservatism Specialist Group and British Politics'.
Image: Addison Berry CC BY-NC-ND