DEPUTY prime minister Nick Clegg today scrapped controversial proposals for an immigrant “amnesty” as he unveiled a tough new stance on visa abuse.
The Liberal Democrat leader said plans to allow illegal immigrants to stay in the UK if they have been in the country for 10 years, which were seen as key to the party’s manifesto in the run up to the 2010 general election, risked “undermining public confidence”.
In his first speech on immigration as deputy prime minister, he said: “Despite the policy’s aims, it was seen by many people as a reward for those who have broken the law.”
He added: “That is why I am no longer convinced this specific policy should be retained in our manifesto for the next general election.”
Taking a harder line on immigration, Mr Clegg unveiled plans for bail-like security bonds, which would be paid as a cash guarantee from visa applicants coming from high-risk countries.
Liberal Democrat plans for a so-called “earned route to citizenship” were rounded on by Conservatives and Labour in the run-up to the general election nearly three years ago.
The party’s manifesto said: “We will allow people who have been in Britain without the correct papers for 10 years, but speak English, have a clean record and want to live here long-term to earn their citizenship. This route to citizenship will not apply to people arriving after 2010.”
The Liberal Democrats believed it would help illegal immigrants integrate into the legal economy and contribute by paying taxes.
Mr Clegg said today that he felt it was an “honest and pragmatic solution given the chaos in the Home Office”.
He went on: “Better surely, we asked, to get them to pay their taxes and make a proper contribution to our society, than to continue to live in the shadows?
“But, despite the policy’s aims, it was seen by many people as a reward for those who have broken the law.
“And so it risked undermining public confidence in the immigration system. The very public confidence that is essential to a tolerant and open Britain.”
Mr Clegg ditched the policy as he outlined his vision for a “tolerant Britain, zero-tolerant of abuse” at liberal think-tank the Centre Forum.
The Deputy Prime Minister pledged to “lay the foundations for an immigration system that embodies this nation’s instincts and its values” as he attacked the previous Labour government for “grossly” mismanaging the issue.
“We are grappling with the difficult challenges in our immigration system,” he said. “Brick by brick, we are rebuilding it. Day by day we are making sure, quite simply, that it works.
“All the British people ask is for a system they can have confidence in. We hear that, and we are delivering it.
“I’m determined we lay the foundations for an immigration system that embodies this nation’s instincts and its values - our openness and tolerance on one hand, our sense of fair play on the other.”
Mr Clegg said visa “overstayers” are one of the biggest challenges faced by the immigration system and the UK Border Agency (UKBA).
“As people travel more, for work, for holidays, you have more people coming into the country for temporary periods and so you need to find ways to make sure they leave,” he said.
“The challenge isn’t just stopping people coming into Britain illegally, it’s about dealing with individuals who come over legitimately, but then become illegal once they’re already here.”
To tackle this issue, Mr Clegg has asked the Home Office to run a pilot of so-called security bonds, which echoes an Australian system applied to family visas.
It is understood the cost of the bonds would vary but are likely to be at least £1,000.
“The bonds would need to be well targeted - so that they don’t unfairly discriminate against particular groups,” he said.
“The amounts would need to be proportionate - we mustn’t penalise legitimate visa applicants who will struggle to get hold of the money.”
Mr Clegg said he will be seeking views on the proposal, including from the Home Affairs Select Committee.
But the committee’s chairman, Labour MP Keith Vaz, rubbished the plans.
He said: “It was shelved twice under the last government because the scheme was unworkable and discriminatory and did not command the confidence of those who had to administer it.
“At the moment the UKBA is unable to collect the fines it imposes on those who break immigration law and is struggling with a massive backlog.
“Those who support these schemes have little understanding as to how our entry clearance operation works.
“Mr Clegg would do better to let us have some accurate estimates of how many Romanian and Bulgarian citizens are due to arrive later this year.”
The Deputy Prime Minister also revealed plans to increase cash penalties for “unscrupulous” employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants because they are cheaper.
The maximum fine is £10,000 per illegal worker - Mr Clegg said he wants the penalty to “double” and has asked the Home Secretary to “look into the right amount”.
Mr Clegg hit out at the Labour Party for leaving the immigration system in “disarray”.
“The problem is that the system has not been well managed,” he argued. “It has been grossly mismanaged.”
He added: “The previous government left us an immigration system in disarray. I cannot stress enough just how chaotic it was.”
The speech comes as the Government toughens its stance on immigration with a range of new measures aimed at bringing down net migration to the tens of thousands.
UKBA officials will conduct interviews with more than 100,000 student visa applicants from “high-risk” countries outside the EU to crack down on bogus students.
And a “genuine entrepreneur” test has been introduced to tackle the rising number of foreign nationals attempting to enter Britain by fudging their bank accounts.
But in the wake of criticism from politicians and the higher education sector, some immigration rules were recently loosened in a bid to give additional flexibility to businesses and allow top international students to pursue careers in Britain.
Last night, Business Secretary Vince Cable hit out at the net migration target as “unattainable”, adding “it isn’t Government policy, it’s Conservative policy”.
In an interview for parliamentary journal The House, he said: “It isn’t Government policy, it is Conservative policy. And it’s also not true because that policy purely relates to non-EU people.
“We have obviously no control over the European Union and that is actually where much of the movement comes.”