THE Deputy Prime Minister is right: when it comes to immigration, the Tories are fixated on a seemingly unattainable and blunt net migration target of under 100,000 people a year.
But, on immigration, Nick Clegg too now wants to show more teeth: specifically his call for much greater control of immigration inflows from EU member states. As long as the UK remains in the EU, of course, this, too, is probably unobtainable.
Politicians promising the undeliverable on immigration is a gift to Ukip. All political parties are now guilty of pandering to, rather than differentiating from, Ukip’s agenda. The Conservative strategy, at the moment, is cap and clampdown.
This explains David Cameron’s promise last month to reduce the amount of time immigrants can be on out-of-work benefits to three months, and new curbs on colleges issuing visas to bogus students. It is negative and unbalanced messaging, giving the impression of an immigration system that is problematic and rife with abuse, again boosting the agenda of Farage and Co.
The constant negativity towards immigration is peculiar for the centre-right. The arrival of people generally more likely to be oozing with ambition and faith should be welcomed, surely.
The Tories need an alternative approach based on competence and contribution. The Government has successfully stabilised the level of immigration, especially compared to the mid-2000s, and steps to integrate different communities are working as the evidence shows.
The system also needs to be seen as fair. And the prevailing conception of fairness in contemporary Britain is based on deservedness: that reward is linked to effort. So the Tories need an immigration system based not on indiscriminate reductions in numbers, but on admitting those who will contribute to the UK.
Most immigrants, of course, do. Countless studies have shown that migrants are much less likely to claim benefits than those born here and are more likely to be entrepreneurs. This is especially true for students and highly skilled migrants. As polling shows, the public does not want to see their numbers reduced. If contribution were at the heart of our system, we would want more of these types of immigrants and the Government would promise to remove them from the net migration target after 2015.
Admittedly, the Government has taken some steps to apply contribution to immigration: new rules mean that EU migrants won’t be able to claim Child Benefit or Jobseekers’ Allowance for at least three months.
But, yes, while that means preventing immigrants who just take from and abuse our system, it also means acknowledging that significant contribution – financially and socially – most other migrants make.
Take the new minimum income requirement for family visas introduced by the Home Office in 2012. Now, a British citizen has to have a minimum income of £18,600 to get their spouse a family visa and £22,400 for those with children, implemented to help reduce numbers and apparently save the taxpayer money. But, under previous rules, people on family visas couldn’t claim out-of-work benefits for two years anyway.
Outside of the South East, these minimum income thresholds is close to the median salary; the Migration Observatory has found that 46 per cent of those in England would not meet the lowest income threshold. Some of these may be subsidised by in-work benefits, but most are still hard-working taxpayers.
The ruling ignores past and future contributions of both the British citizen and their spouse. It enforces single parenthood and disrupts family networks, could be more costly to HM Treasury and blocks the highest of human emotions – love. In essence, deeply un-conservative. Conservatives should show some heart and revise the minimum income rule to reflect a richer definition of contribution by a whole family.
With concerns about immigration at a record high, and Ukip’s allure persistent, a Conservative response should be based on reassuring voters that our system is being properly managed and is fair, not stoking fear it is out of control and is largely a negative phenomenon.