UK immigration policy: more than an enforcement issue

The enforcement culture that frames Home Office immigration policy has manifested itself in a defensive and largely negative approach to policy. Meanwhile public anxiety about immigration in the UK remains high. Positive, customer-focused services need to be introduced into policy making, says Alice Sachrajda

Alice Sachrajda
20 May 2013

Lamenting the failure of immigration institutions has long been a feature of the British immigration system. In 2006, the then Home Secretary John Reid described the immigration operations of the Home Office as ‘not fit for purpose’. In March 2013, the current Home Secretary Theresa May described the performance of the UK Border Agency (UKBA) as ‘not good enough’. As a result, in March 2013 UKBA was abolished with its functions once again absorbed back into the Home Office.

But any hopes that this structural change will, by itself, solve the problems of UK immigration policy are unrealistic.

From a purely practical perspective, it is difficult to see how this change will make enough of a difference. As immigration to the UK increased rapidly in the mid-2000s, UKBA responded with an increased workforce growing from around 3,000 staff in the mid-2000s to around 20,000 staff in 2013. Despite this transformation, UKBA struggled to remain in control of its casework. Before the agency was abolished it had a 312,726 strong backlog of immigration cases. In a time of austerity, restructuring alone, without a significant increase in resources, is unlikely to be enough to enable the Home Office to get on top of the ever-expanding immigration caseload.

But leaving aside the issue of resources, there are other long-standing reasons for UKBA’s problems. These are explored in a recent IPPR report that scrutinises the UK’s immigration institutions and explores how UKBA’s failings stemmed as much from its organisational culture as from its structure. This culture has manifested itself in a defensive and enforcement-driven approach to delivering immigration policy. One of the most high profile examples of this was the case of Louise Perrett, the whistle blower who went public in 2010 with a claim that UKBA staff had tricked and humiliated asylum-seekers. She claimed that UKBA caseworkers held fiercely anti-immigration views and took pride in refusing asylum applications, leading chair of the Home Affairs select committee Keith Vaz to seek remedies for this ‘culture of disbelief and discrimination’.

But how do you address an issue as abstract and elusive as ‘organisational culture’? For Theresa May, the answer is to strip away UKBA’s agency status and bring the functions back under the control of the Home Office. She commented recently that "UKBA was given agency status in order to keep its work at an arm's length from ministers. That was wrong. It created a closed, secretive and defensive culture."

As well as abolishing UKBA, Theresa May has proposed a split between customer-focused case work (now referred to as UK Visas and Immigration) on the one hand, and enforcement functions (Immigration Enforcement) on the other. This is a positive development as it represents an attempt to introduce a more positive, customer-facing immigration service which should, in theory, be separate from the enforcement branch. Nevertheless, immigration policy is framed within the whole of the Home Office as an enforcement issue, similar to crime, so it remains to be seen whether this structural change will lead to real changes in practice.

Tensions within the Home Office are driven by much more fundamental tensions in immigration policy, not least between the Home Office’s focus on control and enforcement (which is legitimate, and not surprising given its wider focus on counter-terrorism, crime and policing, and drugs policy) and the wider interests of the rest of government in immigration policy. This enforcement culture goes beyond areas where it might be appropriate, such as irregular immigration, and permeates the whole process of immigration policymaking and delivery. This inevitably leads to problems where immigration and economic policy meet.

A good illustration of this is international student migration. Policymaking in this area has become dominated by enforcement efforts focused on so-called ‘bogus students’, and the tone of the debate has been strikingly negative. In 2011, Damian Green, at that time the Immigration Minister, stated, in relation to investigations into international students: ‘I have been turning over stones in this area. I have to report that some unpleasant things have crawled out’.

Clamping down on abuse of the student visa regime is undoubtedly important, but requires a response that is proportionate to the scale of the problem. IPPR’s research suggests that non-compliance within the student visa regime is now relatively low, probably no more than around 10 per cent on average, and quite possibly substantially less. In 2012 the London Metropolitan University had its licence to recruit and teach non-EU students revoked over concerns about its failure to monitor students’ immigration status and attendance. The move left up to 2,600 foreign students faced with either finding an alternative course or being forced to leave the UK. The university has since regained its licence, but the uncertainty and negative perceptions of international students created by this case remain. The emphasis on enforcement is coming at the expense of strategic policymaking dedicated to attracting international students who contribute an estimated £8 billion to the UK economy each year.

Rather than concentrating ever more powers in the Home Office, what is needed is greater involvement from other government departments (particularly the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)) to carve out the positive, customer-focused services that are needed in important parts of the immigration system. BIS has been vocal, and at times, deeply critical of the Home Office’s approach to immigration policy, but has lacked the ability to directly influence policy. With reference to government policy in relation to international student numbers, a report by BIS in 2012 made the following comments: ‘While recent figures have shown that those numbers are increasing in absolute terms, the rate of growth is now in decline. These figures need to be read in the context of the grave economic difficulties facing the world economy. However, it is clear that the Government’s policies in respect of student immigration have played a significant part in this decline.’

Public anxiety about immigration is running high. In response, the Home Office, which holds the monopoly on immigration policy, is focusing largely on a negative and reactive, approach to policy. Given that this is the case, it seems unlikely that abolishing UKBA and transferring its functions over to the Home Office will solve the problem of delivering immigration policy in practice. The Coalition’s attempt to place greater controls on immigration apparently with little consideration of the wider ramifications (for example for the NHS) as set out in the Queen’s speech last week, is yet another example of this.

Immigration, whilst understandably contentious, is nevertheless a fact of our globalised world. Controlling immigration and enforcing the rules is necessary, but requires a proportionate response. The Home Office monopoly on immigration policy is proving detrimental to the UK economy and appears to be doing little to diffuse public and political tensions in this area. At the very least, more joined-up working is needed if the interests of other parts of government are to be given due weight in policy debates on immigration. 

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