Manifesto Check: Lib Dems take a more liberal approach to immigration

Not impressed: Nick Clegg would like to distance his party from Cameron’s on immigration. Stefan Rousseau/PA

When asked about immigration in the recent leaders’ debate, Nick Clegg sought to draw a distinction between “good” and “bad” immigration. The Liberal Democrat manifesto does not try to push this distinction. Immigration is presented as primarily a good thing. The party believes in Britain as an “open, trading nation”, “within the European Union and beyond” and celebrates openness to “visitors who boost our economy”, “migrant workers who play a vital role in business and public services” and “refugees fleeing persecution”.

Although the Liberal Democrats were part of a coalition that has tightened immigration policy in several ways, in its manifesto, the party positions itself to push for a relatively liberal approach to future decision making.

A liberal approach

The post-study work visa – which allowed graduates of UK universities to stay and work for up to two years – was removed by the coalition government. Some commentators have called for its restoration. Although the party does not propose to fully reopen the route, its manifesto does contain a proposal to reintroduce a post-study work visa specifically for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates, if work is found within six months of their degree.

Popular opinion tends to be relatively welcoming to students as immigrants. And there is evidence from the US that foreign-born STEM students in particular may contribute significantly to innovation, productivity growth and wages in the country they migrate to.

High-skilled immigration from outside the European Union is currently capped. The party commits itself to “continue to allow high-skilled immigration to support key sectors,” but there is no specific word on what will happen to the cap.

More broadly, there is no mention of a target for overall net numbers of migrants coming to the country. The manifesto does pledge that students will be separated within official statistics. But it is difficult to see the purpose of this suggestion if the number is not to be subject to a target, given that the official statistics – which are prepared to international standards – already distinguish students.

The English language skills of immigrants are mentioned as pertinent to employment prospects, and to schools. Language assessments are proposed for new claimants of the Jobseekers Allowance. English lessons are to be encouraged for parents, where schools have high proportions of pupils with English as a second language.

Better treatment for asylum seekers

Several reforms to the treatment of asylum seekers are announced. Indefinite detention is to be ended. The manifesto also promises to abandon the Azure card scheme, which restricts where and how refused asylum seekers can spend their weekly allowance, and effectively requires them to identify themselves as such when they do.

There are also changes to asylum seekers’ rights to work. Typically, asylum seekers are not allowed to work, unless their case has lasted over a year through no fault of their own. The justification for the current policy is supposedly “to protect local labour markets”. But this seems weak, given that there is no more reason to think refugee migration should be harmful to local employment or wages than economic migration. The manifesto promises, not only to allow asylum seekers to work after six months, but to require work to be sought as a condition of benefit receipt. In light of the evidence, this seems sensible.

Not a problem

Rather than characterising immigration itself as a problem, the manifesto pledges to “tackle weaknesses” in the immigration system, which threaten to “undermine confidence” in it. The party proposes inspections, efficiency improvements and reviews aimed at restoring faith in the system.

Fears about the effects of immigration on the labour market and on public services feature prominently in assessments of public attitudes. Yet there are reasons to doubt how well-founded such fears are.

In the manifesto, there is no discussion – let alone endorsement – of such concerns, but there is a proposal for annual assessment of skill and labour market shortfalls and surpluses, impact on the economy, public services and communities. Such assessments are already regularly carried out by the Migration Advisory Committee. The manifesto proposes to make them annual, and to put them at the centre of a presentation to parliament.

There are also promises to ensure tougher policing of abuses of the system in both education and work. But these are not at all specific in the case of educational institutions, and simply described as a doubling of inspections to check for compliance with employment law in the case of employers.

Further proposed changes to the system appear to be mainly administrative. The party pledges to ensure fast processing of work, tourist and family visas and of asylum claims, but does not provide any details about how they are to be achieved, and at what cost.

The promise to restore full exit checks has been frequently made by many parties, and large steps have already been made to implement it.

Except for a call for the speedy issue of visas, there is no discussion of changes to policy on family migration.

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