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Immigration And The UK Election: What party policies will mean for immigration in 2015

Race and immigration are now seen as the most important issue facing Britain today. In the latest (October 2014) of Ipsos MORI’s regular monthly polls, two fifths (39%), unprompted, put race and immigration top. (The two concerns are put together for the purposes of the survey.)

The subject has consistently featured in the top four issues facing Britain since January 2013, together with the economy, the NHS and unemployment.

Immigration is certain to be one of the most hotly debated issues of the 2015 General Election. And it will be inextricably linked to the arguments over the UK's continued membership of the European Union. All five parties (including the Greens) have views, which will be refined over the coming months. The electorate is likely to have a wide range of choices to ponder.

Immigration on the rise

Let's begin with one incontrovertible fact. The latest official figures (August 2014) showed UK net migration - the difference between those entering and leaving - increased by more than 38% to 243,000 in 2013-14. EU citizens accounted for two-thirds of the growth.

Source: Long-term International Migration - Office for National Statistics

And yet there are still fewer immigrants in the UK than the public generally believe. A separate poll by Ipsos MORI for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London found, as one of the top ten misperceptions in the field of key social policy issues, that the public think 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figure is 13%. Even estimates that attempt to account for illegal immigration suggest a figure closer to 15%.

(There are similar misperceptions on ethnicity: the average estimate is that Black and Asian people make up 30% of the population, when it is actually 11% (or 14% if mixed and other non-white ethnic groups are included.)

Party policy on immigration

So where do the five parties stand on immigration, and what sort of proposals can we expect to see in their election manifestoes when they are finalized in the Spring of 2015? There is still not much detail to their proposals, but this is a digest of what they have been saying and doing.

Conservatives

Prime Minister David Cameron said it was important for the UK "to continue to be a successful multi-racial country that celebrates the diversity that we have here in the United Kingdom", while having "fair and controlled immigration".

However Mr Cameron has made it plain that dealing with immigration will now be part of the debate over the UK's future in the EU. He has promised to put reform of EU free movement rules at the heart of his renegotiations.

This could involve caps on the number of new arrivals from certain countries but no details have been announced.

The party claims net immigration has fallen by a quarter since its peak in 2005 under Labour. It says it is already controlling immigration by:

· Clamping down on benefits tourism and health tourism -welcoming only "those who want to work hard and contribute to our society"

· Cutting net immigration from outside the EU to levels not seen since the late 1990s - to ease pressure on schools and hospitals

· Introducing a new citizen test with “British values” at its heart

Labour

Labour will scrap the Conservatives’ target to reduce net migration to below 100,000, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper announced in September (2014). The party claims that by trying to implement the target, the Tories have put a squeeze particularly on overseas student numbers and on family migration.

The party will heed the strong protests from the higher education sector in Britain that the pressure to cut overseas student numbers to meet the net migration target is damaging an important export industry worth £12bn a year in overseas earnings.

Labour promises an Immigration Reform Bill, to be outlined in more detail in the first Queen's Speech, if it wins in May.

Likely measure includes "stronger" border controls to tackle illegal immigration, with "proper" entry and exit checks. This month (November) Labour said it would pay for 1,000 extra border guards by imposing a charge on visitors from the US and 55 other countries. There would be "smarter" targets to reduce low-skilled migration but ensure university students and high-skilled workers are not deterred. Employment agencies that only recruit abroad will be outlawed, while fines for employing illegal immigrants would be increased.

Lib Dems

Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA

The party says it has helped cut immigration by a third while in government, while refusing to support its Conservative coalition partner's pledge to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”. It wants to make future migration "work" for Britain.

In a wide-ranging speech on immigration in August (2014) party leader (and deputy PM) Nick Clegg says more needs to be done to bear down on illegal immigration, estimated at between half a million and one and a half million.

He said the Coalition was reintroducing exit checks at borders, so the Government can keep track of who is leaving the country and identify people who are overstaying their visa. In government it had withdrawn “thousands” of driving licenses from illegal immigrants, announced new rules to prevent illegal immigrants from opening bank accounts and was clamping down on sham marriages.

On English language tests he said the Coalition had raised the level of English required from skilled workers as well as the husbands and wives of people coming to live and work.

The Lib Dems want all new claimants for Jobseekers Allowance to have their English language skills assessed. JSA would be conditional on attending language courses if the person’s English was poor.

In order that Britain remains a magnet for the "brightest and the best" there should not be a cap on student numbers. And the party wants to encourage overseas students to find high value jobs here afterwards.

Other Liberal Democrats plans could include an annual vote of all MPs on all the key migration questions.

UKIP

Source: Flickr | Peter Broster

The party has a close interest in the subject of immigration, which is a vital part of its campaign to take the UK out of the European Union. Put simply, the party believes we would have to leave the EU if immigration is to fall significantly.

If UKIP was in power, or had influence in a coalition before any 2017 referendum, it says it would bring in the Australian-style points procedure, whereby migrants are selected according to the skills and attributes the UK is looking for. That would apply to people both from inside and outside the EU.

It would cut net immigration to 50,000 people a year. UK passport holders would be given priority at airports and ports of entry. UKIP would increase UK border staff by 2,500, and set more stringent English language tests for migrants who want to live here permanently.

Greens

The party proposes progressively reducing UK immigration controls. Unless migrants who had been in the UK illegally for over five years were shown to pose a serious danger to public safety, they should be allowed to remain here. It would also give more legal rights for asylum seekers.

They propose changing immigration law with one which will not discriminate directly on the grounds of; “race, colour, religion, political belief, disability, sex or sexual orientation. Preference should not be given to those with resources or desirable skills.”

The Green party is the only party which doesn’t seek to stigmatise the issue of immigration saying at a speech on immigration “I think [immigration] is still a vitally important issue. As I said then, this nasty, stigmatising rhetoric, which seeks to blame immigration for low wages, for housing shortages, for crowded public facilities, is not only wrong – these are failures of government policy, not a result of immigration – has serious real world consequences.”

And with headline figures saying that immigration has added a net £25bn to the UK economy from 2000-2011 it is hard to disagree with the Green parties stance on immigration policy.

What the UK electorate actually think about immigration