Petition triggers UK immigration debate in Commons

- Posted in United Kingdom by Dominicon 10 September 2012

An online petition which garnered over 100,000 signatures prompted a debate in the House of Commons over the current state of UK immigration.

Upon taking office, the Conservatives promised to reduce net migration to the UK from the 250,000 level to the 'tens of thousands' by the end of the current parliament. As part of their efforts, the Conservative-led coalition Government have made sweeping changes to UK visa and immigration policy such as salary thresholds and visa application caps.

However, official figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) showed little impact on overall figures, and even included an increase at one point. The latest batch revealed a drop to 216,000 but the ONS said the drop was 'not statistically significant'.

MigrationWatch Petition

MigrationWatch UK advocates
tougher immigration control.

Nevertheless, the drop was lauded by Conservatives as proof changes to the immigration system were beginning to take effect but Sir Andrew Green of MigrationWatch UK, an independent think-tank which favours tougher immigration control, said the figures proved more had to be done.

"The Government must ensure that they pursue the national interest ahead of vested interests," said Sir Andrew.

"They now need a blitz on bogus students and much tougher action on enforcement and removal. For too many years we have had only a token effort at tackling illegal immigration."

Following the figures' release, MigrationWatch launched an online petition which urged the Government to curb UK immigration. The petition claims the Government needs to reduce net migration to approximately 40,000 to prevent the population from reaching 70 million; it currently stands at approximately 63 million.

The petition, which calls for 'all necessary measures' to keep the population down, gained more than 100,000 signatures within a week, bringing national attention to the watchdog's cause.

House of Commons

Senior Conservative MP Nicholas Soames opened a debate in the House of Commons over the issue, urging the Government to continue making changes to the immigration system to ensure the country's population does not exceed 70 million, which predictions expect to happen at some point in the next two decades.

Mr Soames blamed the previous Labour government for its 'chaotic, ill-thought out and deeply irresponsible approach to immigration' which led to an uncontrolled influx of migrants; a factor current Labour leader Ed Miliband has since acknowledged.

"In the coming 15 years we will have to build, just for new immigrants and their families, the equivalent of eight of the largest cities outside London, together with all their associated infrastructure, of schools, roads, hospitals, railways and all the rest," said Mr Soames.

The Conservative's position was backed by Labour's Frank Field, who said the issue was becoming such a concern that it took precedence over partisanship.

Mr Soames and Mr Field, along with the support of eight other members, tabled a motion to implement some of the measures outlined in MigrationWatch's petition.

Heated Debate

The immigration debate in the UK has proved extremely divisive in the past and this motion proved no different. SNP MP Pete Wishart called the Commons motion a 'nasty little motion' while Labour MP Dianne Abbott took exception to Mr Field's argument when he claimed there were some second generation immigrants who 'harbour such terrible thoughts in their hearts about us'.

Mr Wishart also said the language used in the watchdog's petition, particularly the phrase 'all necessary steps' was worryingly authoritarian, a sentinment shared by Lib Dem MP Martin Horwood, who criticised the motion's tone as inflammatory:

"Would [Mr Field] agree that actually immigrants can make a very positive contribution to our economy, and to our culture, and we need to take a balanced, evidence-based approach to this whole debate, and not use language that will inflame fears amongst minority ethnic communities in this country?"

The Government's goal of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands by 2015 has widely been dismissed as impossible and Shadow Immigration Minister Chris Bryant claimed in the Commons that the rise in population was inevitable.

"The fact is that if net migration were zero in every category for the next 25 years, the population would grow to 66 million," said Mr Bryant.

"And if it were tens of thousands, the population would be 70 million just after 2035."

Future measures 

Martin Ruhs, director of the Migration Observatory at Oxford University, said MPs needed to 'move beyond rhetoric and into substance' when it came to controlling immigration.

Marissa Murdock, casework manager at the UK Visa Bureau, says a more measured approach to immigration is required.

"There is almost no debate that immigration, properly managed, can benefit a country, particularly the UK. There are thousands of people who want to move to the UK for no other reason than to work hard, contribute and lead a better life," said Ms Murdock.

"Abuse of the system is common and does need to be dealt with but an absolute approach like those some have suggested will only serve to damage the UK's reputation abroad of, and foster resentment within, an enviable multicultural society."

- Dominic Ladden-Powell is the Online Editor for the UK Visa Bureau.