Economist praises Clegg’s “impressive” immigration proposals

by Stephen Tall on August 30, 2007

Earlier in the week, Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems’ shadow home secretary, set out in The Observer his thinking on what a liberal immigration policy should look like. In particular, he tackled head-on the issue of what to do about the estimated 600,000 immigrants living illegally in the UK:

… a route of earned legalisation should be made available to those who have lived here unauthorised for many years. We would set stringent criteria – this is not a blanket amnesty – namely that the applicant should have lived in the UK for many years; should have a clean criminal record; and should show a long-term commitment to the UK. The applicant would be subject to a public interest test and an English language and civics test, and would be required to pay a charge. This would be of economic benefit too, with the exchequer estimated to be losing out on as much as £3.3bn in unpaid tax each year.

Here’s what this week’s Economist has to say about Nick’s proposals:

… the plan looks more credible than the government’s commitment to deport all illegal immigrants, something which at the current rate would take at least 25 years. It may also be more humane: giving such migrants legal status should make it easier to protect them from people-trafficking, low pay and other forms of exploitation.

There are economic advantages too. Deporting people is expensive: the National Audit Office puts the average cost at £11,000 per person, including nabbing and detaining them and paying their legal fees. The taxes that would be generated by taking illegal workers out of the black market would help to pay for some of the public services that they use (the Institute for Public Policy Research, or IPPR, a think-tank, puts the extra taxes at £1 billion a year, though other estimates are higher). Local authorities are obliged to provide education for children aged from five to 16 regardless of their immigration status; illegal migrants are required to pay for treatment on the National Health Service, but this is difficult to enforce in practice. …

Mr Clegg admits that his party has often been quiet on the issue of immigration. Too lax a policy would lose votes, whereas a hard line would offend both the social-democratic and classically liberal wings of the party. Yet the perceived failure of the government to deal with immigration and the Tories’ relative reticence on the matter until now (David Cameron seemed to change tack a little this week when he said in a television interview on August 29th that immigration was “too high”) have given the Lib Dems an opportunity to take a lead on the issue. Mr Clegg’s idea, though some way from being fully formed, is an impressive attempt to seize it.

The proposal will be debated at the Lib Dem conference in Brighton in September.