Few topics consume the public consciousness like immigration, certainly no others have an impact on sensitive issues such as race, living standards and our relationship with the rest of the world. Yet, the recent announcements by the prime minister and now the deputy prime minister, on immigration policy are recognition that migration issues will be one of the key battlegrounds in the forthcoming general election.
Politicians on all sides of the political divide should acknowledge that annunciating high principled, populist views on immigration fails to tackle the inherent structural problem that has beset the implementation of policy. The government would do better by taking the radical step of carving out immigration from the Home Office, bringing it into the Cabinet, and returning the portfolio once again to a full time position.
New immigration announcements are guaranteed press coverage. The recent silver bullet policies proclaimed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, however, are, after scrutiny, hardly real news. Halving the amount of time foreigners can claim benefits in the UK, stopping more than 500,000 British jobs being advertised across the EU and ending translation services for those applying for driving licences and passports, are ideas that have been touted for a while. It is difficult to see how Ed Miliband will disagree with any of these. Yet again, however, we have not seen a new immigration announcement that is a fundamental break with the past. There are no concrete proposals that will solve illegal migration, nothing here that guarantees the holy grail of lowering net migration below 100,000, now an unachievable target, and no real action on removing Foreign National Offenders. The latter is particularly frustrating thanks to the 10,695 currently in British prisons who cost the taxpayer £300million a year. We simply cannot send EU prisoners back to their home countries. What is worse, however, is even if these much needed solutions were in place they would never fully work without a structure that ensures that they hit their target.
Parliamentary scrutiny has worked well to try and get the government to understand that the architecture of immigration management is not working. Theresa May got it right when she abolished the UK Border Agency (UKBA) under intense pressure from stakeholders and Parliament. It is true the public is better served now than before. The incomprehensible letter on immigration statistics and progress (or lack of it) that Lin Homer, the former head of the UKBA, used to send the Home Affairs Select Committee has given way to robust three monthly scrutiny, with clear indicators, and regular appearances from Ministers and Director Generals of the Home Office. It has even led to the immigration backlogs being eventually reduced from 500,000 to 300,000. There is nothing like the oxygen of regular publicity to concentrate minds. Despite this success, progress has been more akin to a long and unwelcome visit to the dentist, namely painful and slow. A better way of pursuing immigration policy and ensuring ministerial oversight is needed now.
The recent and ongoing passport delays are a perfect case study to show how the lack of ministerial oversight. HM Passport Office (HMPO) has ran a surplus of £73million last year and £53million this year whilst presiding over a backlog of 500,000 cases, which as of last Friday still stands at over 300,000. Everyone knows someone who has been affected, even, most alarmingly, breakfast television presenters have had to cancel cherished family summer holidays!
When the public was faced with intolerable delays they took to social media to demand action, but the government was slow to react. Perhaps it was a reluctance to admit that HMPO, the only section that seemed to be working well in the Home Office firmament, had suddenly gone pear shaped but the government seemed to go through every stage of grief in five days in early June.
First there was the denial of the problems on the Monday through press statements from the Home Office and the claim from the immigration minister James Brokenshire that it was because of the upturn in the UK economy. Considerable anger followed with an unprecedented number of MPs that attended a backbench adjournment debate on the subject on the Tuesday and the reluctant admission by David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions on the Wednesday that there were problems. This was followed on the Thursday by emergency measures announced by Theresa May in a statement to the Commons. Like a 24-hour supermarket the HMPO was to remain open all hours. Finally, after a whirlwind visit to the Peterborough Office by Theresa May, a grudging acceptance followed on the Friday which then slowly developed into the Home Secretary apologising at every opportunity. It is a real shame that in just five days the agency turned from being a swan into an ugly duckling.
There are clear management issues, yet to be resolved, and the fact that the HMPO is an agency is no excuse. The Home Office and Ministers should have seen the ensuing chaos coming and put in place measures to stop the crisis in March not three months later in peak season. It is clear that the government knew that there were due to be significant additional applications to be dealt with in the UK for at least a year and should have prepared much better. In July 2013, a page in the Annual Report and Accounts for the Identity and Passport Service indicated that when the passport hubs around the world were closed the expected impact at the UK based passport offices was an extra 350,000 applications a year. It's a no brainer that the addition of every person in Southampton and Oxford applying for a passport equals a significant amount of additional work for those who process applications. As it turns out we should have added the population of Inverness to the calculation too as the additional applications rapidly hit the figure of 390,000. To be unprepared as this is at best naïve and at worst negligent.
Accepting the changes needed in HMPO, however, only deals with the thin end of the wedge as far as immigration issues are concerned. A step change needs to be brought in across the government's immigration portfolio to prevent a "Groundhog Day" scenario of shambles following shambles.
David Cameron missed a golden opportunity in the recent reshuffle to take out immigration from the unwieldy Home Office and bring it into the Cabinet. The Home Office and immigration should be treated in the same way as the Treasury. The Minister for Immigration should sit in the Cabinet as the Chief Secretary of the Treasury does, still under broad departmental control, but with a seat at the most important table in government. This would enable the immigration portfolio to be under the direct scrutiny of the Prime Minister but more than that, it would allow the Minister of Immigration oversight of everything necessary to do his or her job. We cannot underestimate the benefit to an Immigration Minister of being able to have direct and constant interaction with the Foreign Secretary on relations abroad (especially given the drama over East European migration), with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to discuss migrant contribution to society and to see other heads of government departments. Far too many who attend Cabinet are given the privilege as a personal courtesy for missing out on promotion, but this Cabinet chair should be given on the basis of need.
What is also clear is that the immigration portfolio cannot be handled by a full time Security Minister. Under every previous government no Immigration Minister was part time, nor should they have been. The job is immense with the Minister having responsibility for a net spend of over two thirds of a billion pounds.
The origins of the current double hatting was as a result of the sudden resignation of the then Immigration Minister Mark Harper, now returned to the government. A Minister was needed quickly so the Security Minister, James Brokenshire, also became the Immigration Minister. Mr Brokenshire has done an impressive job as Security Minister over the past few years and he is seen as a safe pair of hands. He is clearly liked and trusted by Mrs May. However, even from the outset where he completely misjudged his first immigration speech and caused a firestorm that raged through the 'metropolitan elite' in the Cabinet and outside, it is clear that making him juggle 52 different responsibilities at the same time is optimistic to say the least.
Security, as we have seen constantly over the last few years through issues such as foreign fighters, data retention, TPIMs and counter terrorism, is a full time job. Under Mr Brokenshire's watch we have still no idea where Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed and Ibrahim Magag have gone.
Combining the two jobs leads to absurd situations where Home Office officials have to call Select Committee staff minutes before our last Committee session to rearrange the timings in order for the Security Minister to lay a critical piece of security legislation before Parliament. This left two of the most senior immigration officials at the Home Office waiting, until Mr Brokenshire miraculously transformed into their Minister. Thankfully, since no member took part in the debate on the floor of the House, he just about managed to do both but the potential for a mistake is clear for all to see. These are not jobs where you can hope for the best, but critical areas of government policy.
The rise of Ukip, the vitriolic discussion over the relaxation of border controls relating to Romania and Bulgaria, the abolishment of the UKBA and now the problems at the Passport Office, show that immigration is, without doubt, an all-consuming issue for the public and one that is going to be at the front of voters' minds on and before 7 May 2015. However, the government, rather than shadow boxing with Ukip by continuing to make claims over a net migration figure they have no control over, should create a structure that ensures immigration is given its full attention. After all you can have as many silver bullet policies as you like, but without the gun to fire them you're never going to hit the target.