As the dust settles on the most unpredictable general election in decades, it appears that very little has in fact changed. The immigration policy landscape looks remarkably similar to the way it looked a week ago. Following endless discussions about coalitions, agreements, hung parliaments and pacts, the Conservatives now have an overall parliamentary majority and have eased back into power without much anxiety or negotiation, leaving their former coalition colleagues floundering with just a handful of parliamentary seats and a looming leadership election.
What does all this mean for immigration policy? The simple answer is not very much. Maintenance of the status quo is the order of the day.
Under the coalition government, the Home Office was resolutely Conservative territory. Theresa May was resolute in her determination to project a tough stance on immigration policy and to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands before the end of the last parliament. The message was that Labour had let immigration get out of control, particularly following the accession of eastern block countries to the EU and the Tories would get the mess under control. The net migration target was however missed spectacularly. Net migration reached 298,000 in the last year of the coalition government, which was broadly where it had been five years previously.
Despite this failing, Theresa May has remained in post this week, becoming one of the longest serving Home Secretaries in memory, and is still publically committed to the net migration target. The political message therefore remains unchanged.
What can we expect over the course of the next 5 years? The Conservative party only has a small, outright, majority. The government will therefore need the support of the whole parliamentary party in order to pass key legislation. Previously they had a large majority made up of moderate Liberal Democrats. There is a significant group at the right of the conservative parliamentary party that is hostile to the European Union and to human rights legislation. Both of these issues will be at the forefront of national and parliamentary debate in the near future. The government will therefore have to work with other parties to have a majority on matters where it does not have the support at the right of its parliamentary party. We can expect to hear much more from the Tory right who will consider their ability to influence legislation to be significantly enhanced.
The Conservative party manifesto commits the government to repealing the Human Rights Act 1998, to introducing a British bill of rights and to curtailing the role of the European Court of Human Rights, in particular where deportation cases are concerned.
The manifesto commitment is also to delivering annual net migration in the tens of thousands and to maintaining the cap at 20,700 (for Tier 2 migrants) during the next parliament. Changes to the student visa system are promised including reviewing the highly trusted sponsor status for student visas and increasing sanctions for colleges and business who fail to ensure that their students or workers comply with the terms of their visa. Those regularly using the shortage occupation list will need to provide long term training plans for training “British workers”.
Regarding the European Union, it is proposed to renegotiate rules to access on benefits so that those exercising treaty rights have to be working in the UK for 4 years before they can claim benefits or tax
credits (this will involve renegotiation as it would not be permitted under the current terms of EU law) and there will be no access to job seeking benefits at all. The intention is that EU nationals will have to meet residency requirements for social housing and those EU migrants who have not found a job within 6 months will be required to leave. The government also hopes to negotiate stronger powers to deport EU nationals who have committed criminal offences and impose longer re-entry bans. Furthermore, there is also an intention to impose English language tests and income thresholds on EU nationals. The government is committed to a referendum on EU membership, following these negotiations, by the end of 2017.
There are further commitments to enhancing border security and to strengthening the enforcement of immigration rules and it is stated that there will be tougher labour market regulations to tackle both illegal working and exploitation. A new controlling migration fund will be introduced for authorities experiencing high and unexpected volumes of immigration, some of which will go to enforcement.