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Back-door immigration amnesty has been in place for 20 years

April 23, 2010 6:37 PM
By Alan Travis in guardian.co.uk
Gordon Brown, centre, and Conservative party leader, David Cameron, right, hope Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's policy on immigration will prove an achilles heel. Photograph: Reuters

Gordon Brown, centre, and Conservative party leader, David Cameron, right, hope Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's policy on immigration will prove an achilles heel. Photograph: Reuters

Despite their attack on Liberal Democrat proposals, Labour and the Conservatives have pursued a similar policy

Labour and the Conservatives are targeting the Liberal Democrats' policy of an amnesty for illegal migrants, hoping it will prove the achilles heel that will lead to Nick Clegg's downfall.

But both parties have overseen at least four back-door amnesties over the last 20 years and presided over an immigration system that operates a 14-year rule allowing long-term illegal residents to be granted indefinite leave to remain.

Like Conservative and Labour home secretaries before him, Clegg says he is not proposing a blanket amnesty. Instead, he calls it a "route to citizenship" that would allow people who have been in Britain for 10 years, who speak English, who have a clean record and who want to live here long term to "earn" citizenship.

In this week's leaders' debate, Gordon Brown said this would encourage more people to come to Britain illegally while David Cameron predicted it would trigger a big increase in asylum claims. But Clegg bluntly told both that it was simply not credible to deport the hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants who were already here: "You can't deport 900,000 people. You don't know where they live," he said.

It is something both Cameron and Brown should acknowledge, because granting amnesties in all but name is what their home secretaries have been doing for the past 20 years:

• When Michael Howard was home secretary, no public announcement was made, but a rapid increase in the number of asylum seekers granted exceptional leave to remain, from 2,000 in 1991 to 14,000 in 1993, strongly suggested a deliberate policy of reducing backlogs by administrative means. In 1996, in a separate backlog-clearance exercise, he allowed thousands more overseas students and marriage applicants to stay "unless there was substantial cause for doubt".

• In 1998, Jack Straw insisted that there was no question of amnesty but he allowed 30,000 failed asylum seekers to be allowed to stay in Britain simply on the basis that they had faced lengthy delays.

• In 2003, when David Blunkett was home secretary, 15,000 families of asylum seekers who had waited more than three years for a decision were allowed to stay as a "one-off" exercise.

In addition to these specific occasions, the London School of Economics has estimated that 160,000 irregular migrants were given official status between 2003 and 2007. This was partly as a result of eastern Europeans who had been living illegally in Britain for many years becoming legal when their countries joined the EU. It is also a result of an ongoing "case resolution scheme", in which the UK Border Agency is going through a backlog of 450,000 asylum files. So far, 74,000 have been given permission to stay.

But as well as these organised exercises, the existence of the 14-year rule has seen 2,000 to 3,000 individuals being given the right to stay. The court of appeal recently upheld the legality of this "statute of limitations" calling it "in effect an amnesty clause".

The rule was only formalised in 2003, but its existence as an informal concession dates from the 1980s.

All Clegg is doing is arguing that this long-term residence rule be reduced by four years.

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has even talked of going further and reducing it to five years.

Either way, expecting people to live and work illegally for 10 years is hardly likely to spark a further wave of illegal migrants.

What they are saying on immigration

David Cameron ridiculed the Liberal Democrats' regional immigration policy as leading to "border posts along the M5" and bans on people living in different parts of the country.

But Nick Clegg says that the regional points system will not operate that way: "We will change the rules so it is easier to get a work permit if you go and live in a part of the country that is short of workers to encourage newcomers to live where they are needed."

Home affairs spokesman, Chris Huhne, has said that work permits will be much more difficult to get in London and the south-east "which are struggling to find enough water and homes for everyone". It means in areas of labour shortages such as Scotland and south-west England they can be the party of migration while being against inner-city conurbations.

The Institute of Public Policy Research says that while immigration is national, its impact is local. They say this solution will complicate the system and would be hard to enforce.

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