The Liberal Democrat leader sets out to correct the idea that his party is soft on immigration with his first speech on the topic as deputy prime minister, including plans for £1,000 visa guarantees.
In a wide-ranging speech on immigration, Nick Clegg also abandoned proposals for an illegal immigrant “amnesty” which were seen as key in the Liberal Democrat’s manifesto in the run-up to the 2010 general election.
Mr Clegg said the plans to allow illegal immigrants to stay in the UK if they had been in the country for 10 years risked “undermining public confidence” as he admitted that the manifesto pledge was misinterpreted, and seen by many as “a reward for those who have broken the law”.
The move away from the amnesty was one of several shifts on immigration outlined in the speech at liberal think tank the Centre Forum, in which the deputy prime minister took a harder line than he has in the past. It is his first speech on the topic as deputy prime minister, more than two and a half years since the coalition government was formed.
“We need an immigration system that is zero-tolerant towards abuse. Tolerant Britain, zero-tolerant of abuse. That’s the vision the coalition is working towards,” he said.
Tolerant Britain, zero-tolerant of abuse. Nick Clegg MP
Mr Clegg also proposed tougher penalties for those who knowingly employed illegal immigrants, as well as other measures to tackle what he described as the “chaotic” immigration system left in place by the previous Labour administration.
He suggested a system to deal with “visa overstayers”, people who come into the country for temporary periods and then stay illegally once their visas expire.
“As people travel more, for work, for holidays, you have more people coming into the country for temporary periods and so you need to find ways to make sure they leave,” he said.
“The challenge isn’t just stopping people coming into Britain illegally, it’s about dealing with individuals who come over legitimately, but then become illegal once they’re already here.”
To tackle this issue, Mr Clegg has asked the Home Office to run a pilot of so-called security bonds, which echoes an Australian system applied to family visas. People coming into the country would pay the money, thought to be around £1,000, and it would be returned to them when they leave. It is unclear whether the prices could vary by country.
“The bonds would need to be well targeted – so that they don’t unfairly discriminate against particular groups,” said Mr Clegg.
“The amounts would need to be proportionate – we mustn’t penalise legitimate visa applicants who will struggle to get hold of the money.”
Mr Clegg said he will be seeking views on the proposal, including from the home affairs select committee. But the committee’s chairman, Labour MP Keith Vaz, rubbished the plans.
He said: “It was shelved twice under the last government because the scheme was unworkable and discriminatory and did not command the confidence of those who had to administer it.
“At the moment the UK Border Agency is unable to collect the fines it imposes on those who break immigration law and is struggling with a massive backlog. Those who support these schemes have little understanding as to how our entry clearance operation works.
“Mr Clegg would do better to let us have some accurate estimates of how many Romanian and Bulgarian citizens are due to arrive later this year.“
Mr Clegg’s speech fits with the wider coalition mood on immigration, as the government toughens its stance with a range of new measures aimed at bringing down net migration to the tens of thousands.
The measures include interviewing more than 100,000 student visa applicants from “high-risk” countries outside the EU to check they are bona fide students, and introducing a “genuine entrepreneur” test.
But after criticism, some rules have recently been weakened to give more flexibility to businesses and allow top students and businesspeople into Britain to further the coalition’s growth agenda.
Last night, Business Secretary Vince Cable hit out at the net migration target as “unattainable”.
In an interview for parliamentary journal The House, he said: “It isn’t government policy, it is Conservative policy. And it’s also not true because that policy purely relates to non-EU people.
“We have obviously no control over the European Union and that is actually where much of the movement comes.”