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Sir Andrew Green, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is the chairman of Migrationwatch UK, an independent think tank.
How could it possibly have happened? That must have been the question on everybody’s lips when they heard that nearly 1,000 foreign criminals had been released into the community without any consideration of their deportation. Not just criminals — serious criminals at that.
Regrettably, this is just one symptom of an immigration system that has been allowed to crumble into chaos over the past 10 years. Behind their happy talk about “managed migration”, the Government has simply lost control of our borders. Hence David Blunkett’s admission a year or so ago that he “hadn’t a clue who was in Britain”.
The reason is startlingly simple. For nearly eight years there has been no check on foreigners entering or leaving Britain. We issue 2.5 million visas every year but nobody has any idea how many of those visitors, students and business people actually return to their home countries.
The official immigration figures now show that net foreign immigration in 2004 exceeded a third of a million. Even that number takes no account of people who stay on after their visas have expired, nor of those illegal immigrants who arrive in the back of a truck.
These numbers are the main reason the Immigration and Nationality department of the Home Office is simply overwhelmed.
When a scandal hits the headlines — whether it be sham weddings, bogus students or one-legged roofers — they can only rush round sticking their fingers in the dyke.
In this latest case, the complexity of the system has added to the problems. Indeed, it seems to have led to a complete meltdown.
A recommendation for deportation is a matter for the courts, but the actual decision is for the Home Secretary. This decision can be appealed. If that is lost, there can be a further appeal against the destination.
That is the theory, but it transpires that there are no clear guidelines for the courts and the general principles have not been revised for 25 years. Some 500 or more recommendations are made annually, but we now discover that a large number have not even been considered.
At present deportation cannot be recommended as a sentence in its own right and nor can it, apparently, justify a reduction in the sentence. This is a pretty hopeless framework, even if the administrative machinery is working, which it is not.
The time has come for an entirely different approach. There should now be a zero-tolerance policy towards foreign criminals. There should be a presumption of deportation for any offence that results in a sentence of 12 months or more. On a second conviction, the “trigger” level should be six months.
Further, there should be an automatic recommendation of deportation for those offenders who are illegal immigrants.
But even this will not be enough to restore public confidence. The public have lost faith and lost patience in this Government’s immigration policies.
Successive polls have demonstrated that 80 per cent of the public simply do not believe that the Government is open and honest about immigration. They hear constantly about its policy of “managed migration” but what they see on the ground is quite different.
Stories abound of illegal immigrants who are reported but with no action as a result. Then there are a quarter-of-a-million failed asylum seekers who should have been removed but are still here. And, of course, there is extensive illegal work by foreigners, many of whom are being abysmally exploited.
To be fair, the Government is getting some things right — or at least trying to. It plans to re-introduce embarkation controls at our ports and to bring into force biometric visas. It has also been courageous in pushing on with its plans for ID cards and I suspect that its inside knowledge of the chaos in the immigration system is a significant driver in this matter.
All this will take several years, but it will at least provide the tools with which an immigration policy could be implemented.
The problem is that the Government has no such policy. It has no idea how many people it would like to have in this country. On its own forecasts, immigration will add to our population the equivalent of the population of Birmingham every five years. It will also require the construction of 1.5 million houses, simply for immigrants, in the next 20 years.
It is increasingly clear that this is unacceptable to the British people. Not only are we a very crowded island — we are nearly twice as densely populated as Germany and four times as crowded as France — but it is also increasingly clear that these high levels of immigration are holding down the wages of the low paid. This makes it even more difficult to move from welfare into work the 4.2 million British people who are on unemployment or incapacity benefit. What is needed now is a sharp change of policy to restore public confidence.
A poll which Migrationwatch commissioned a few weeks ago showed that 76 per cent of the population favour an annual limit on immigration. But the Government is not listening and people feel that they are being ignored. Meanwhile, even the Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, has warned that we are “sleep-walking towards segregation”.
If this appalling shambles is to have any silver lining, it must be a re-think of where our immigration policy, or lack of it, is leading.
(Posted on April 28, 2006)