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Howard: Getting a grip on Asylum and Immigration

Michael Howard warns that immigration made Britain a stronger country but that the current system needed to be reformed so that it was fairer and more effective.

"People today are more cynical about politicians and politics than they have ever been before. Look at any opinion poll and you'll see that we are right down there with estate agents and journalists in the public's eyes.

But that is hardly surprising because too many politicians have made too many promises over the last few years which they have failed to keep.

Take tax, for example. People have been misled on tax for over a decade. In 1992 we promised to cut taxes and then we put them up. In 1997 Labour said that they would not increase taxes at all and then they raised them 66 times - the equivalent of sixteen and a half pence on income tax.

So many people think politicians' pledges aren't worth the paper they're written on.

Regaining that trust will be very hard indeed - I am under no illusion about that.

We need to start from first principles, setting out clearly what we believe in.

We need to be honest about the challenges Britain faces. If something is true but tough, we must not shrink from saying it.

And we need to tell the truth about exactly how much we can deliver. Politicians do not have the answer to every problem and we should stop pretending that we do. If something cannot be done, we must level with the public.

Rigorous honesty; measured criticism; realistic alternatives - that is the way to renew people's trust in politics.

I want people to have the freedom to get on with their lives and get on in life, safe in the knowledge that government will provide them with proper security.

That is why I am a Conservative: freedom and security, the two timeless Conservative ambitions.

The Challenges Britain Faces

Britain today faces real challenges.

People are paying too much tax, and they're not getting value for money. High taxes, bloated government and ever increasing regulation are undermining the long term competitiveness of the British economy.

Crime is out of control. It's like a shadow across our country. We need more discipline and more respect. People need to know that if they commit crime they will be punished.

The Government has tried to improve our schools. Money has been thrown at the problem, but it's been wasted on bureaucracy. One in three 11 year olds cannot write properly. What hope do they have for the future?

Billions of pounds have been spent on the NHS, but it's been wasted on bureaucracy. There are still a million people waiting for treatment in Britain - many of them old and frail. People deserve better than that in their old age.

And we have lost control of our asylum and immigration system. At a time when Britain faces an unprecedented terrorist threat, we appear to have little idea who is coming into or leaving our country.

Action, Not Talk

People are tired of talk. They want action - action on schools, on crime, on the NHS, on value for money for taxpayers and on immigration.

When I was Home Secretary, crime fell by almost 20 per cent in four years.

So I do know how to get a job done. You have to be clear about what it is you want to achieve. You have to follow through what you start. And you have to focus relentlessly on the detail.

In the months ahead the Conservatives will set out, simply and clearly, exactly what we want to achieve and how we will get the job done. On each issue, we will be honest about the challenge we face and about what we can do to solve it. Conservatives will not make promises they cannot keep.

Today I want to address asylum and immigration, issues I first raised in Burnley last February.

Immigration is not an easy subject for politicians to debate. It raises strong emotions. I know. When I was Home Secretary and took action to get to grips with immigration, I was condemned by some commentators as being a traitor to my immigrant roots. They seemed to believe that British people from immigrant families could have no possible interest in wanting to see immigration controlled.

I've lost count of the times I have been told by British people from ethnic community backgrounds that firm immigration controls are essential for good race relations.

Doubtless I will be condemned again tomorrow. And doubtless my opponents will claim that my speech today is a "lurch to the right".

But immigration and asylum are not side issues. They are a cause for concern across the world. Australia, Ireland, Denmark, America, India and Canada have all taken steps to address the problem. And it is a cause for concern right across Britain - irrespective of people's background, skin colour or religion.

People know that Britain's immigration and asylum system has broken down. They know that it is chaotic, unfair and out of control. They want politicians to be honest about the problem. And they want clear, fair and practical action to tackle it.

Benefits of Immigration

For centuries Britain has welcomed people from around the world with open arms. We have a proud tradition of giving refuge to those fleeing persecution. And we have always offered a home to families who want to come here, work hard and make a positive contribution to our society. My father was one of them.

Migration in both directions is part of a dynamic economy. Our industries and businesses depend upon skilled labour and expertise which can often be found abroad.

Britain has benefited from immigration - both economically and culturally. We are a stronger, more successful country because of the immigrant communities that have settled here.

Many of them came to Britain with almost nothing and had to start again from scratch. But hard work, determination and a willingness to integrate propelled them forward. They are a credit to our community.

Britain has an enviable record of racial integration. Over the years hundreds of immigrant communities have successfully integrated into British society. They have rightly held on to their traditions and culture, while also embracing Britain's and playing their full role in our national life.

But any system of immigration must be properly controlled. Firm but fair immigration controls are essential for good race relations, the maintenance of national security and the management of public services. Britain is a densely populated and prosperous country. There are, literally, millions of people in other, poorer, countries who would like to settle here if they could. Britain cannot take them all. So the scale of immigration is important.

Immigration in Britain Today

Sadly, Britain's immigration controls today are neither firm nor fair. They are chaotic and they are out of control.

Consider these facts.

Only one out of every five failed asylum seekers is ever removed from the United Kingdom.

Government officials have given work permits to people when they knew that their applications were fraudulent.

David Blunkett has said that he sees "no obvious upper limit to legal immigration". Net immigration to Britain has averaged 158,000 people a year for the last five years.

According to the Government's own predictions, Britain's population will grow by 5.6 million people over the next thirty years - equivalent to five times the population of Birmingham. Immigration will account for 85 per cent of that increase.

Population increases of this kind do have important public policy implications, which no responsible political party could - or should - ignore. Take housing, for example. The majority of immigrants settle in London and the South East, where pressures on housing are most pronounced.

John Prescott plans to build an extra 3.8 million homes in England over the next twenty years - 700,000 of them (that is 18 per cent) are due to net immigration.

But Prescott's projections are based on net annual immigration of 65,000 a year. Net annual immigration today is more than double that - at 158,000 a year. On that basis we will need an additional 4.85 million homes - a million more than the Government is planning for.

As the Government's own Community Cohesion Panel argued in July, large scale population increases have an impact on the demand for public services and community relations.

Let me quote from that the report. "… There are", it said "concerns about the speed at which newcomers can be accommodated. Housing, education, health and other services all take time to expand".

The Panel went on to add - and I quote - "But people also take time to adjust. The identity of the host community will be challenged and they need sufficient time to come to terms with and accommodate incoming groups, regardless of their ethnic origin. The 'pace of change' (for a variety of reasons) is simply too great in such areas at present".

David Blunkett may believe that there is "no obvious upper limit to legal immigration". I do not agree. While migration in both directions is part of a competitive and dynamic modern economy, immigration to Britain cannot continue at its present, uncontrolled levels.

A New Approach

Britain has reached a turning point. As a country we need a totally new approach to immigration and asylum. We need a system that helps genuine refugees and gives priority to those who want to come to Britain, work hard and make a positive contribution.

Illegal Immigration

We will start by cracking down hard on illegal immigration. It is quite wrong that hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants are living in Britain.

Some arrive undetected. Others come here legally as students, visitors or on a work permit but stay on illegally. Many are failed asylum seekers who have not been deported. There are now over 250,000 failed asylum seekers living in Britain who have no right to be here.

Illegal immigration can be very dangerous. It often involves a long journey, concealed in a truck with little food, water or ventilation. People die in the process. But sadly for many it seems to be a risk worth taking.

When illegal immigrants arrive in Britain, they often end up living in very poor conditions, working in dangerous situations on very low earnings well below the minimum wage.

The tragedy at Morecambe Bay earlier this year was a stark reminder of just how bad and how dangerous illegal immigrants' working conditions can be.

Now I am happy to admit that I made mistakes in government. We all do. And one of them was to lift the checks for passengers leaving the UK for the European Union. My mistaken decision was at least limited in its effect. But Jack Straw compounded the problem by scrapping all embarkation controls in March 1998.

If immigration officials don't check people as they come into and out of the country (as they do in America, Australia and Canada), then they can't do anything about those who fail to leave after their work permit or student visa has expired. According to a National Audit Office report into UK Visas, a tracking exercise carried out in Accra found that 37 per cent of a sample of students issued with a visa could not subsequently be traced.

A Conservative Government would re-introduce embarkation controls, as the first step in a package of measures to clamp down on illegal immigration. And we will take tough action against companies who employ people illegally. In the last three years there have been just 17 prosecutions and six convictions for employing illegal immigrants. After the tragedy of Morecambe Bay this should be a priority.

Legal Immigration

We will also take firm but reasonable action to bring legal forms of immigration under control.

Without any consultation whatsoever, Labour have presided over a massive increase in immigration. It has more than doubled since they came to power.

Labour's justification for this unprecedented increase - in as much as they have given one - has been largely economic.

The Economics of Immigration

As I have already said, of course economies benefit from immigration. But it is all a question of scale.

Tony Blair argues that Britain's economic growth rate "would be some 0.5 per cent lower over the next two years if net immigration were to cease".

The actual figure is 0.4 per cent . But what the Prime Minister failed to mention was that because the population will have increased by a quarter of a per cent in that time, the benefit per head is negligible.

In the United States a 1997 study by the National Research Council found that immigration added just a tenth of one per cent to income per head each year.

In any case, the pool of labour available to British employers has increased dramatically because of EU enlargement. The ten new members of the EU have a combined population of roughly 70 million. The Irish Government has recognised this fact - drastically reducing the number of work permits issued to people from outside the EU.

Others have argued that we need immigration to fill the 500,000 job vacancies here in Britain. But there are currently 1.46 million people unemployed in our country today and over two million people who are economically inactive - people the Government wishes to move from welfare to work.

The truth is that the best way to increase our national income is to boost productivity and competitiveness - just as they have done in America. But thanks to increasing the increasing burden of regulation and taxation, Britain's productivity growth rate has fallen by a third since Labour came to office. And we have fallen from fourth to fifteenth in the international competitiveness league table - a drop of 11 places.

Large scale increases in immigration are not going to solve Britain's productivity problems. But if left unchecked and uncontrolled it will place growing demands on our public services and on housing - demands which we may not be able to meet.

It also risks undermining community relations in the UK. To quote again from the Government's Community Cohesion Panel:

"We believe that inward immigration does create tensions and that these do not necessarily revolve around race. It is easier for more affluent communities to be tolerant towards newcomers as they do not perceive them to be a threat … By contrast, many disadvantaged communities will perceive that newcomers are in competition for scarce resources and public services, such as housing and school places. The pressure on resources in those areas is often intense and local services are often insufficient to meet the needs of the existing community, let alone newcomers. These fears cannot be disregarded".

An Annual Limit to Immigration

I believe that each year Parliament should set a maximum limit on the number of people coming to Britain, just as they do in Australia. That limit should be determined by Britain's economic needs, the demands of family reunion and our moral obligation to give refuge to those fleeing persecution.

And within each category of immigration we need root and branch reform to ensure not just that Parliament's limit can be met, but also to create a fairer system, which is less open to abuse. That will enable us to make a substantial reduction in the number of people coming into the UK.

Work Permits

Labour have quadrupled the number of work permits issued each year from 40,000 to 175,000. The work permit system has become a major source of immigration. Once here, permit holders are usually able to stay indefinitely. After four years permit holders can apply for settlement: a significant number do and 95 per cent of applications are granted.

What is more the administration of the work permits system is a shambles - as James Cameron, the British Consul in Bucharest revealed earlier this year. Officials are working to a "target" - yet another government target - of deciding 90 per cent of all applications within 24 hours. Serious checks are impossible in that timescale.

Conservatives will restore strict control over work permits. We will introduce a points-based system on the Australian model for the evaluation of applications. And we will reverse the assumption that a work permit will, almost automatically, lead to long term settlement.


The asylum system is another area of chaos. Many of those claiming asylum are not genuine refugees. The Home Office concedes that up to three-quarters of the people seeking asylum in Europe do not meet the criteria of full refugees. In Britain, only two in 10 applicants are granted asylum, while another two in 10 are granted permission to stay ("leave to remain" or "humanitarian protection").

Only one in five failed asylum seekers are deported. Failing to deport rejected asylum applicants encourages more people to claim asylum falsely. People who are not genuine asylum seekers know that even if their claim is rejected, they are overwhelmingly likely to be able to stay in the UK.

Claiming asylum is being used as a means of getting round Britain's immigration controls. Peter Gilroy, Strategic Director of Social Services for Kent County Council (and the man responsible for the social services needs of asylum seekers entering through Dover, the busiest port of entry in the UK) has estimated that about 50 per cent of asylum seekers are "in the category of coming here because they are trying to seek work and to make a better life for themselves"

To get here most asylum seekers must undertake a long, dangerous and expensive journey, often at the hands of people smugglers. Genuine refugees who cannot afford the cost - or are not strong enough to make that journey - cannot apply.

The current system is helping to sustain an international people smuggling network. It is estimated that "… a large proportion of asylum seekers arrive in the UK as the result of illegal people smuggling operations conducted by criminal gangs". These criminal gangs charge would be asylum seekers thousands of pounds to bring them to Britain.

The gangs' often cynical disregard for the welfare of their human cargo was brought into stark relief when the bodies of 58 Chinese immigrants were found in the back of a sealed container in a lorry at Dover in June 2000. They had all suffocated. It latter transpired that each of those on board had paid tens of thousands of dollars to Chinese smuggling gangs known as "snakeheads" to get to the UK. They had travelled from China through Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, France, Holland and Belgium on their way to Britain.

A Conservative government will tackle these problems at their roots. We will pull out of the 1951 Refugee Convention, as is our right, by giving twelve month's notice to the Secretary General.

The Convention is now thoroughly outdated. It was agreed during the Cold War when a relatively few number of people were able to escape from behind the Iron Curtain. Its authors could not have imagined that it would come to be exploited by tens of thousands of people every year. We will also enter reservations against the relevant parts of the European Convention on Human Rights.

We will replace the Convention with British legislation, which will allow cases to be decided more swiftly. Genuine refugees will be welcomed, but those who are not will be swiftly removed. This will immediately deter people from falsely claiming asylum in Britain - significantly reducing the numbers.

In the longer term I also want to end the current situation where people can only claim asylum if they enter Britain illegally or by deception. This is illogical and immoral.


Integration is a key part of any successful immigration policy. A common language is the most obvious binding element in any society. Without it, it is much harder for people to be active members of the community.

It's important that people who make their home here learn the language of our nation. Of course people may choose to carry on speaking their family tongue at home - that must be a matter for them. But they do need to learn English properly too.

David Davis and Tim Collins will soon announce a package of measures to help immigrants learn English.


Everything I have I owe to this country. My family came here with very little and made a life for themselves. I want others to benefit from the opportunities I had. Immigration is good for Britain - we are a stronger and more successful country because of the immigrant communities that have settled here.

But we cannot continue to allow unlimited immigration into the United Kingdom indefinitely. Immigration needs to be controlled and it needs to be fair.

Parliament needs to set an annual maximum limit on the number of people coming to Britain in the light of our country's needs. We need to get a grip on illegal immigration, reintroduce strict controls on work permits and take action to reduce the number of people falsely claiming asylum in this country. That will enable us to make a substantial reduction in the number of people coming into the UK.

There are no easy answers to the challenges we face, but the proposals I have set out today are reasonable, clear and practical.

They will ensure that we regain control of our borders, restore public confidence and thus permit the proper integration of newcomers into our society. It will also deal with the concerns of the Government's Community Cohesion Panel and help to maintain good record on community relations.

These proposals are based not on dogma but on reason, common sense and what has worked round the world. They will enable Britain to move forward as a confident, diverse yet united society. That is an aspiration which almost everyone shares. The measures I have outlined today are the best means of achieving it."


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