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Even Tighter Controls Won't Fix Our Broken Immigration System

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The news today that immigration backlogs are, in the opinion of the Home Affairs Select Committee, "spiralling out of control" will seem alarming to the large body of public opinion who had expected the coalition government to get some order into the management of migration.

The Select Committee report reviews the evidence of the UK Border Agency's performance on a quarter-by quarter basis and the latest scrutiny looks at the period between April and June 2012.

The extracted headlines tend towards the lurid, with the Telegraph taking up the committee chair's quote that the "immigration backlog is the size of Iceland" and the Daily Mail claiming that "border chiefs are 'camouflaging' the issue". All this is due to the fact that the UK Border Agency is clearly embarrassed by the fact that its backlog of 'unresolved' immigration cases had grown to over 300,000 during the relevant quarter.

Closer reading of the text suggests that what is being measured by these figures has less to do with an increase in the number of people breaking the rules, than the continuing failure of an important government agency to perform the basic tasks it has been given by government.

Keith Vaz, the Member of Parliament who leads the work of the Select Committee, hinted at the difficulties which exist when he commented on the release of the report that the Border Agency is obliged to organise its work by generating a series of "opaque" instruments, such as "Migration Refusal Pool" and "Controlled Archive" which contain lots of cases which no one is even sure relate to real people.

It seems that the basic task of immigration control, dealing with regulations of immense complexity applicable to large numbers of people in a wide range of diverse circumstances, is capable of producing the duplication of files, wrong closures of live cases, and a multiplicity of other errors. Upon proper audit these errors now thoroughly confuse everyone as to who exactly is in the country and whether or not at some point in the past they have been given permission to stay or were ordered to leave.

Yet the real challenge is not, as the Select Committee suggests, for the agency to finally get a grip on things and bring everything into the type of control which has eluded it for all these years. It would be useful if the politicians were to acknowledge the fact, drawn from efforts at immigration management in many countries across the world, that control bureaucracies are in a chronic state of flounder from one region to the next and no one has done any better than anyone else in dealing with the situation.

Instead, what might be usefully asked in the context of a 'grown-up conversation' about immigration policy is whether we are not continually asking too much of our border guards in presuming that perfect control over the movement of people can be exercised in quite the way politicians seem to require.

One of the ironies is the fact that government always responds to the evidence of the clear failure of existing procedures by piling yet more dense and complex rules onto an agency which is already buckling under the existing burden of regulations.

The outcome is inevitable: an already overstretched and under-resourced agency does its best to meet new targets, such as the current aim of driving net immigration down to the level of tens of thousands even though the political classes who ordain this outcome show little understanding of what is involved in this task.

The civil servants and agency officials confront the need to fill in all the grey areas of policy with their own initiatives, such as 'intelligence-led' checking procedures, 'migration refusal pools' and 'control' archives, which they think can be presented to parliamentary committees as evidence of progress, only to find their work hauled over the coals for producing 'opaque' outcomes which satisfy no one.

The net result is that targets are missed by large margins and, even when officials produce some figures which suggest progress, they are immediately pulled apart by people who say it is nothing of the sort. No wonder everyone is incredulous and there is widespread belief amongst the public that 'the system is out of control'.

Level-headed analysts of the public policy debate, such as Dr Rob Ford of the Institute for Social Change at Manchester University, have long argued that one of the causes for so much anxiety about immigration amongst the public is less to do with the numbers involved, and more about the claims of politicians to have everything under control, when patently they haven't.

Ford's work suggests that the political class should level with us on what exactly can and can't be done with immigration policy in a modern world where so much of our hopes for prosperity are based on moving goods, services, investment and people across national frontiers. Absolute control is impossible and arguably counterproductive. What we need to concentrate on is what immigration means in the practical terms of community life - whether it is promoting economic growth and allowing the benefits to be shared around, or whether shortages and bottlenecks are being created which need the attention of pro-active public policy at the grassroots level.

Properly read, the Select Committee report should be seen as yet one more chunk of evidence that complex regulation and permanently over-stretched officialdom is not the best way to go about this business of immigration policy. Let's have the honest admission from all those politicians who have tried that approach and who have failed to get the outcomes they hoped for to admit we need something new.

Counting all the migrants in and then counting them all out seems to be something we can't do at any cost that is proportionate to what the tax-payer is likely to want to cough up. Decent economic and social policies which are aimed at ensuring that immigration turns into decent jobs, better public services and fairer outcomes for all hasn't even been tried yet. It's high time it was.