Immigration Bill 2016

A new Conservative government was elected in May with a mandate to bring migration down to sustainable levels. Alicia Ioannou of the Home Office gave consuls a report on the impact of the Immigration Act 2014 and tighter restrictions in the pipeline

The latest migration figures released by the Office of National Statistics on November 26 show that net migration to the UK is at 336,000, substantially higher than the “tens of thousands” pledged by Prime Minister David Cameron.

Hostile environment
The aim of the Immigration Act 2014 and the new Immigration Bill is not simply to facilitate the removal of illegal migrants, but to create a hostile environment that makes it more difficult for irregulars to remain under cover.

The Immigration Act is having an impact in four target areas for non-EU migrants:

  • The appeals system – more than 1000 foreign national prisoners have been removed under the ‘deport first, appeal later’ measures
  • Sham marriages – Home Office referrals have led to 230 arrests since March 2015
  • Hostile environment – a pilot scheme in the West Midlands requiring landlords to check the status of their tenants led to 260 referrals and the scheme will be rolled out in full in early 2016. More than 10,000 drivers licences have been seized and banks now have the authority to refuse opening a new bank account to illegal migrants
  • The NHS surcharge – the requirement for temporary migrants to contribute to the NHS has generated £20m

Migration route restrictions
Changes to immigration rules during the last Parliament sought to restrict the three routes to migration in an effort to slow the growth of net migration.

The general work route (Tier 1) was closed and limits were placed on the highly skilled route (Tier 2). Intra-Company Transfers have been tightened but it was made easier for investors and entrepreneurs to enter. A scheme was also introduced for those with exceptional talent.

There was a crackdown on so-called ‘immigration factory’ colleges, more than 800 of which were removed from the register of sponsors. Students now need a minimum required level of English when studying at degree level and stricter rules have been introduced for English language testing following revelations of massive fraud at test centres.

There are new maintenance requirements and the right to work was restricted to those at universities and publicly funded further education colleges.

Non-EEA partners or parents need have a basic (A1 level) English before they can come or remain here and a intermediate (B1 level) before they can settle. A minimum income threshold (£18,600) for sponsoring a non-EEA partner was put in place and the minimum probationary period before settlement was extended from two to five years.

New immigration rules will create a hostile environment and make it difficult for illegal migrants to remain under cover

New immigration rules will create a hostile environment and make it difficult for illegal migrants to remain under cover

EU Migrants
The Immigration Act also included measures to dampen the “pull factor” for EU migrants by curtailing their access to welfare benefits.

EU migrants can no longer claim job seekers allowance, child benefit or child tax credits on arrival, nor do they immediately qualify for social housing or housing benefit.

EU migrants with no prospect of finding employment are unable to claim benefits and those who have been removed face a 12-month re-entry ban.

The new Bill
The new Immigration Bill will build on the Immigration Act and impose further tough measures in six areas:

  • Illegal working – It will be a criminal offence to work illegally and earnings can be confiscated
  • Labour Market – a New Director for Labour Market Enforcement will be appointed to crack down on the worst cases of exploitation.
  • Skills levy – To redress skills shortages, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) will be consulting on funding apprenticeship schemes for British and EU workers by implementing a new visa levy on businesses that use foreign labour.
  • Services – It will be easier for landlords to evict illegal migrants and there will be a crackdown on rogue landlords. Banks will be able to take action against existing current accounts held by illegal migrants
  • Appeals – The principle of ‘deport first, appeal later’ of foreign offenders will be extended to all immigration cases, except where this would cause serious irreversible harm.
  • Tagging – Foreign offenders released on bail will be required to be tagged, so their whereabouts can be located easily.

Future reforms
Tightening access on the three migration routes – study, work, family – are being considered.

  • Study – There may be further targeted reforms to tackle visa abuse but no cap on genuine students wanting to study in the UK. Despite strict requirements, the number of university applications is up 17% and 168,000 student visas were issued last year.
  • Work – The MAC will advise the government by the end of the year on restricting work visas to genuine skills shortages and highly specialist experts. They will also advise on raising salary thresholds for Tier 2.
  • Family – Manifesto commitment that a non-EEA partner must have an A2 (elementary) level of English at the Further Leave to Remain stage.

Asylum policy overhaul
Home Secretary Theresa May also announced a major overhaul of the asylum system which will be published next year. The main themes of the new policy will include:

  • Priority for the most vulnerable, taken directly from conflict zones
    EU nationals will be unable to claim asylum
  • Refugees who enter the UK illegally or via other safe countries before claiming asylum will only be given the minimum stay of protection and will be barred from permanent settlement.
  • Alternative ID documents for failed asylum seekers who do not have their own passports
  • Safe return reviews

EU Referendum
Tightening up on rules governing free movement of EU migrants is a major part of Prime Minister Cameron’s EU reform package that British citizens will vote on by the end of 2017.

Restricting free movement is likely to be the most contentious part of the negotiations. Under a reformed relationship with the EU, the UK would like to achieve tougher and longer re-entry bans for fraudsters (such as those who come to the UK to enter into a sham marriage). The UK government would also like to redress anomalies where it is easier for a spouse of an EU national, under free movement rules, to settle in the UK, than it is for the spouse of a British citizen.

The UK is also seeking stronger powers to deport criminals and prevent them from re-entering the UK.

Most difficult of all to achieve will be further reforms to the welfare system to limit EU migrants’ access to in-work benefits – something the EU is resisting under the principle of non-discrimination.

Better communication
Ioannou admitted the Home Office needed to get “better at communicating” its policies and aims to work more closely with stakeholders, including the consular community.

The Home Office is currently engaged in a campaign to simplify and clarify the immigration rules so that they are easier to understand and are user friendly and appealed to consuls to flag up any issues with the new rules so that problematic aspects can be ironed out.

The FCO also works with, and sometimes co-funds, partners and charities who have the expertise to deliver specialist services.

Managing expectations about what consuls can and cannot do, and modifying traveller behaviour through information campaigns, are key to the FCO’s consular strategy.

“We encourage people to take personal responsibility on their travel decisions,” said Roper, who showed consuls some of the FCO’s recent awareness campaigns encouraging travellers to take out adequate insurance.

Last year, drug-related cases dropped by 19%, which the FCO attributes to raising awareness about the dangers taking drugs abroad.

In 2014 The FCO’s online travel advice pages saw nearly 29 million hits, an increase of 21 per cent on the previous year.

But it is crises – such as the attacks in Paris and Sousse or the Sharm El Sheikh evacuations – where the FCO faces intense scrutiny. “The thought of a consular crisis is what keeps ambassadors awake at night,” said Roper.

In the past decade the FCO’s crisis capability has been upgraded. A crisis centre was opened in 2012 and these days Rapid Deployment Teams can be scrambled and on the ground within 24 hours to assist in an emergency.

All heads of mission receive intensive pre-post crisis training. Crisis plans take a “whole of mission approach,” said Roper, with every member of staff having designated roles, not only the consular staff.

Consuls welcomed the opportunity to compare consular practices, particularly when protection arrangements exist between EU and some Commonwealth services.

Alicia Ioannou