On Tuesday I had a conversation with Mr Brokenshire following his letter to me. He came over as a someone seriously trying to grapple with a genuinely difficult set of problems. I have no doubt he wants to deliver the Prime Minister’s promise of getting net migration down to tens of thousands, and is pushing his officials to come up with ways of limiting the numbers of people coming in under various regulations. He answered my points intelligently and explained the legal constraints that affect it. I am also quite sure that Mr Cameron himself knows the importance of the promise he made and wants the Home Office to deliver for the government.
I reject the views of those who have written in suggesting there is a tri partisan conspiracy between Labour, Lib Dems and Conservatives to ensure migration levels remain high. Labour did change the rules and did allow and want higher inward migration. Conservatives are trying to change the rules to reverse that policy and get back to nearer the levels of migration that we experienced prior to 1997 under a Conservative policy, when a net 50,000 a year was more normal. Labour multiplied the rate by five.
We do need to ask why is it proving so difficult, and what else does the government have to do to achieve its objective. Of course I understand the frustrations of some that the promise has not been delivered. Ministers are not all powerful, and live under the law like everyone else. At the root of this problem is just how far can Ministers exercise their unique power (with Parliament) to change the law? How many European constraints are there and can they be changed?
The first thing is to defend the current arrangement of having our main border with France in Calais. It would make no sense to bring all those would be economic migrants and asylum seekers to the UK, offering them false hope by so doing. Ministers have been right to work with the French government to strengthen that arrangement.
The second thing is to send people back promptly who do arrive here as economic migrants but who do not qualify under our schemes to let in students and suitably qualified workers. The Minister agrees, but says the UK courts and legal system often intervenes to delay sending people back. It should be easiest to ask people to leave at the port of arrival, but the legal requirements seem to get in the way of making a quick decision there and then. This needs to be tackled in UK legislation to the extent that we have the power to do so.
The third thing is to become better at tracking down and removing illegal stayers in the UK. That will be the point of the stronger legislation the Minister is proposing. All of us have to help enforce the law, by not letting illegal migrants get jobs, school places, rent homes, drive cars and have bank accounts. The idea behind the new checks on access to these facilities is to give the authorities more chance of discovering an illegal migrant and arranging for them to leave.
There are three major problems with enforcing a clear and simple UK law on these matters. The first is the European Court of human rights. The second is freedom of movement within the EU. The third is the workings of the UN Convention.
The government has pledged to tackle the human rights requirements. If the UK Parliament debates and votes to amend the law, that should be sufficient legal and moral guarantee of reasonable law without it being judged again in the ECHR. The original ECHR was designed to stop military dictatorships or other authoritarian regimes from abusing people, not to stop democratic societies deciding who they welcome to their table.
The government is currently engaged in negotiating a new relationship with the EU. They would be wise to make gaining control over our borders a leading priority, as they need to show the UK voters that after renegotiation they will be able to deliver their migration promise. Leaving the EU would certainly make controlling our borders much easier. The worry today is that any country in the EU can welcome in migrants of various kinds and then grant them the right to come to the UK under free movement.
The UN Convention on refugees should allow sensible rules, as it did before 1997. The UK should do its bit and take some refugees, but should have the Parliamentary power to decide how many and how their safe passage here can best be handled. Parliament needs to send clear directions to our judges, without foreign laws and courts changing the policy.