Westminster Column

14th October 2011

The Government is making radical changes to immigration policy in order to reduce net migration to the sustainable rates we saw in the 1980s and 1990s. Under the previous Government, immigration rates broke all preceding records and net migration reached 2.2 million – twice the population of Birmingham. A recent survey found that nearly three quarters of those polled supported bringing net migration down to the tens of thousands a year or less, I know many of my constituents would agree.

To control immigration all the main routes of entry - work, family and education – must be addressed, and the automatic link between temporary routes and permanent settlement broken. And that is what we are working to do. The previous Government did not just leave the visa system in a mess. As recent reports have revealed, they spent a fortune on an asylum system that simply failed to deliver. They also failed to address illegal immigration. We are taking action to clear up the mess in these areas too.

Immediately after coming to power this Government started work to control immigration. The first route we dealt with was work visas. Within weeks we had a temporary cap in place on non-EU economic migrants, and by April of this year the permanent cap came into effect. This is the first ever annual limit on work visas and as a result we expect economic migration to fall by a fifth compared with 2009.

Then we introduced reforms to the student visa system – the single largest route of entry. We found many examples of unacceptable abuses of this route, as well as examples of substandard and even bogus colleges. To tackle these abuses we introduced a proper system of accreditation for colleges and tough new rules on the level of English required for students. We also brought in new restrictions to limit students bringing dependants and ended the post-study work option for all but the very brightest. Our measures will be fully in place by next year and we estimate that this will cut net migration by more than 60,000.

The spotlight has now been turned on the family route. We have consulted on a range of measures like language tests and extending the length of time before settlement – and access to benefits – can be granted. Our conclusions will be announced later this autumn, but we have already taken action to address sham marriages – and produced new guidance so that those officiating are better placed to spot people trying to cheat the system.

In addition, we are taking steps to cut the link between temporary and permanent migration. Under the current system, too many workers were allowed to apply to stay here permanently. In 2010, 84,000 people who entered the UK for employment were granted settlement compared to less than 10,000 who qualified for employment related settlement in 1997. That is why another consultation paper has been published to set out reforms in this area, which include putting an end to the assumption that settlement will be available to those who enter the UK on the skilled worker route.

Meanwhile, we are clamping down on those who have no right to be here. Already in the first half of this year, we removed more than 25,000 people and we are very close to clearing up the previous Government’s asylum backlog. We are taking action to control illegal immigration by creating a Border Police Command, as part of our new National Crime Agency. By April next year, every passenger on non-EU flights will be checked in advance of travel using the e-borders system. And to give us better control over those who overstay, we will reintroduce exit checks by 2015 – to count people in and out of the country.

The actions that I have outlined are critical to ensuring that immigration works for us rather than placing unacceptable pressure on public services. The policies we are pursuing to tackle non-EU routes, which we know account for the vast majority of net migrants, are key to controlling migration levels as we continue to unwind the previous Government’s disastrous legacy, reducing immigration levels to the tens, not hundreds of thousands.