EU Referendum

Immigration: opportunities galore


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A interesting news item graced the BBC website and most of yesterday's television news bulletins, telling us that spending by tourists visiting the UK is expected to reach record levels this coming next year.

Spending passed £20 billion for the first time in 2013, while the 2014 total is likely to be around £21.3 billion. And now, according to forecasts by tourism body VisitBritain, it is set to exceed £22bn this year.

Overall, tourism has grown at a faster rate than other industries since the end of the recession and is one of the UK's main export earners. That is the result of 29.8 million trips in 2010, with 35.1 million trips expected in 2015 - up 2.5 percent on this year.

If the BBC had wanted to be mischievous, though, it could have also drawn attention to recent media reports which have drawn attention to the problems with overstayers, to the fact that numbers are higher than thought and to the concerns of the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.

It might also have drawn attention to the Select Committee Report and the attendant publicity which relayed concerns that tighter border checks could have a "serious negative impact" on trade and tourism and create "highly visible" queues at the border.

Such controls could also have a knock-on effect, delaying traffic on the way from Calais to Dover, making stationary lorries more vulnerable to boarding by illegal immigrants.

Such contrasts would, of course, bring to light the inherent contradictions between the economic necessity of attracting high volumes of visitors, and the need to control illegal immigration.

But as long as international tourism remains a vital industry – and we are in competition with close European neighbours who are after the same tourism cash, there is a limit to how far we can exert control over our borders. In fact, in physical terms, opening up our country to high visitor volumes means abandoning any attempts at controlling our borders at the point of entry.

The reality is that control is not exerted at the borders, but by a series of administrative checks and enforcement actions taken by diverse agencies, all aimed at deterring overstaying, and picking up those who remain in this country without permission.

But it is there that the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration has expressed his concern. His recent report noted that a mere 884 immigrants (0.73 percent) from a group of 120,545 who had overstayed their visas and been refused permission to extend, had left the country voluntarily after being confronted by the firm Capita, which had been contracted by the Home Office to reduce the so-called "Migration Refusal Pool" (MRP).

Taking into account the normal outflow and the inflow as new cases were added to the pool, the Chief Inspector remarked that the enforcement activity – with payments of over £12 million to Capita for 2013-15 – was having no impact on the level of overstayers, which was largely static at over 160,000.

This is especially significant as a clampdown on licit immigration would be expected to prompt an increase in overstayers. Yet, if the Home Office cannot deal with the burden as it stands, there can be little confidence that it will cope with the more intense pressure that greater numbers would bring if entry requirements were tightened.

Furthermore, Government inaction has meant the potential illegal immigrants are hardly deterred from attempting to melt into the community.

Only a tiny proportion of tip-offs about potential illegal immigrants are investigated by the Home Office, and even fewer lead to offenders being deported. Last year, nearly 49,000 reports were received over nine months about foreigners alleged to be living or working illegally in Britain, but officials looked into only 2,695 of them. 

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Unsurprisingly, therefore, YouGov is now reporting on public opinion trends for the year, finding that, from May to December, immigration was seen as the most important issue facing the country, except for on three occasions when it was tied with the economy.

Although immigration began to narrow the gap at the end of 2013, having been 18 behind that year, compared with 32 in 2012, it was in 2014 that it finally broke out as number one issue - the first year since 2010 when the economy had not been on top. Overall, it had an average lead of one point over the whole year.

Given the serial incompetence of the Government in dealing with this issue, the prominence is not at all overblown. But what is not entirely justified is that the suggestion that the situation arises entirely as a result of membership of the EU or that leaving the EU is going to improve matters to any great extent.

Not least, eight out of the top ten countries from which visitors came (accounting for 6 percent of all visits) were from EU member states. These were France with four million visitors, Germany just over three, Ireland 2.3 million, Holland 1.9, Spain 1.7 million, Italy 1.6, Poland 1.3 and Belgium 1.2, the total coming to about 17 million.

The idea that we could police 17 million people at our borders is beyond reason, thus requiring us to focus on the more realistic measures we can take, as distinct from the empty rhetoric.