Today seems an auspicious day to examine Labour’s recent immigration history.
At first glance it may appear that Labour has been generous on immigration policy in recent times. In some respects this is right. Immigration has certainly increased since 1997. As Don Flynn wrote so perceptively in 2002 in Tough As Old Boots, though, migration is for Labour merely an aspect of economic policy. The title of the 2006 White Paper said it all: Making Migration Work For Britain.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with seeing immigration in macro economic terms. Philippe Legrain’s work is very interesting, for example. The problem is that for the Labour Government, this is all migrants are: tools of economic policy. By failing to see immigrants as actual human beings, Ministers and civil servants have made the mistake of Enoch Powell in the 1950s. At a time of shortage of labour, he was happy to recruit nurses from abroad. He didn’t see or understand that having emigrated to a new country and a new life, they would not want to go home. Migrants aren’t just pawns of policy, they are human beings. They have rights and expectations, which include being treated humanely and fairly. Being encouraged to come to and settle in the UK under one set of rules and then later being told that they are surplus to requirements is not humane nor is it fair. Neither is being treated like cattle as an asylum seeker then later being welcomed as a recognised refugee.
As with examining children, management in the NHS, ID cards, tax credits and all the other facets of the massive growth in state bureaucracy since 1997, the immigration department (first the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, then the Border and Immigration Agency, now the UK Border Agency – the evolution of the department title tells its own story) is bureaucratic and lacks humanity. It depends on petty, sometimes ridiculous rules set by Ministers and too many staff lose sight of the impact of their actions on the real person behind the paperwork.
On the positive side of the scales, though, we have the Human Rights Act, the extension of legal aid to cover immigration and asylum appeals and sporadically generous integration policy. These now strike me as being oversights, the implications of which were not understood by the Government at the time. There has certainly been considerable retrenchment.
What will happen after today’s voting? Whoever is in charge, it doesn’t look good.