Laura Kuenssberg: Former home secretaries on why it’s so hard to cut migration

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By Laura Kuenssberg, Presenter, Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg

If you were given a fiver every time a government minister parroted the slogan that promises to end migrant channel crossings you would be pretty flush by now.

You know the one.

It’s branded on government lecterns, on the backdrop behind the prime minister when he gives speeches, it’s all over social media, and the methods the government wants to use are in a big set of new laws making their way through Parliament. yYou can read about it here.

But Rishi Sunak’s vow to “stop the boats” is far from the first time that a government has said it will get a grip on immigration.

Mr Sunak is concentrating on curbing illegal immigration and the number of asylum seekers, which rose sharply last year and is close to record levels.

But the headline figure for net migration – the difference between the numbers entering the country legally and those leaving – hit an all-time high over the past 12 months, despite years of Conservative promises to get it down.

So, I have spoken to five former home secretaries, Conservative and Labour, about why it is just so hard to manage the numbers of people who want to come to the UK – whether those who make dangerous journeys and arrive here illegally, or to claim asylum, or those who have permission to work or study and move here from other countries.

“We can’t be honest”, says one former occupant of one of the hardest jobs in government.

The first barrier is a political one. This former home secretary said governments “want to give the impression that you can do something about it, but it is very, very difficult”.

‘Country needs immigrants’

And when it comes to the overall numbers, that include asylum seekers and those who come here with permission to work or study, in 2022 they hit 606,000 – a record level.

The Conservatives promised the public that they would get the net migration figures under 100,000 but that “created the fundamental problem”, says another ex-home secretary.

The government “said we’ll get the numbers down…but the country needs immigrants”, they add.

This ex-minister told me it was a target “I never believed in – I never thought that it was sensible”.

Our third former home secretary told me “it was vainglorious” to try to cap numbers at 100,000, a figure that now seems totally and utterly out of reach.

And repeatedly promising the public that the numbers will fall makes it hard for ministers to admit that the immigration system is now, ironically after Brexit, more liberal than it was before.

One of the former home secretaries said the numbers are “sky high because of deliberate Tory policy”.

Another said: “We have put in place the most liberal regime ever” to enable workers the economy needs and students to come to the country legally.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman might want to put her foot on the brake, but half a mile further up Whitehall, the Treasury tends to put its foot on the accelerator if there simply are not enough Brits either willing or able to do jobs that business and public services need to fill.

Beyond the political contradictions, our five former Home Office bosses shared a long list of tricky practical considerations.

Rwanda policy

They all agreed, and had tried in various ways, to work more closely with France and the rest of the European Union, on illegal migration, something that inevitably became harder after the UK left the bloc and relationships soured.

Rishi Sunak has tried to improve things with Emmanuel Macron, but it’s a long way off a so-called “returns agreement” where France would take migrants back who have crossed the Channel.

Chart showing numbers of asylum seekers (March 2023)

And one of our sources said: “When other countries hear us whingeing they don’t have much sympathy.”

Several suggested making a dent in the overall net migration figures by taking students out of the count, and also removing Brits who have returned to live at home. They agreed that reducing the number of family members who could join immigrants in the UK as the government is doing would help.

But there was a good dose of scepticism among the five Conservatives and Labour former home secretaries I spoke to about whether the government’s more controversial plans to tackle illegal immigration will work.

Ministers want to detain and then remove anyone who arrives in the country without legal permission to claim asylum, either to Rwanda or another safe country, so far there are no other names on the list.

One of them told me they don’t disagree with the concept “but I just don’t think it’s going to work”.

Another was more scathing, saying “it’s ridiculous – where are all these thousands of people going to go?”

One of their other former colleagues told me it is “insane” to imagine that thousands upon thousands of people can be removed or sent back to their original country.

‘Campaigning tool’

The current home secretary is deeply committed to the plan, and points to the success it had in Australia.

But many experts in the sector describe it as a gamble and, as another of Suella Braverman’s predecessors said, “there is absolutely no evidence that it will work”.

That does not of course mean that it is doomed to fail, but Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman cannot be sure that their plans will indeed “stop the boats”.

Migrants, picked up at sea attempting to cross the English Channel, are helped ashore from an Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) lifeboat, at Dungeness on the southeast coast of England, on December 9, 2022
Migrants picked up at sea are a highly visible symbol of the problem

There’s suspicion too, as one of our five ex-ministers says, that the focus on small boats “is a campaigning tool to drive a wedge between the government and the opposition”, and the policy “won’t work”.

They suggested that illegal immigration has always, and will always be, a problem – and it is only the visibility of boats on the Channel coast that has increased the pressure to act.

The government “smashed” illegal entries through the Channel tunnel, they claimed, so those desperate to enter the UK turned to small boats.

“When they came through the tunnel we didn’t know” how many migrants there were, they suggested, but now they are picked up at sea rather than disappearing into the Kent countryside from trucks or containers.

‘It is possible that we are getting the same numbers but no one wants to talk about that, no one wants to admit, ‘if you shut down one route, what’s next’?” the former minister told me.

All five of the former home secretaries I spoke to were crystal clear about one thing.

The UK government can change and improve the immigration system and make a difference to the numbers of people who come to live in the UK.

Huge promise with big difficulties

But as much as politicians hate to admit it, there are factors that they cannot control that lead people to leave their countries – conflict, climate change, economics.

One warns that the pressure is only going one way: “If you think it’s bad now, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” they said.

Another was frustrated that our politics has made it difficult to set out a positive case for immigration – “there is a problem of a rising population but it’s better than the problem of a falling one”.

This government has made big promises on immigration. But it has big difficulties.

There are disputes in towns and cities over migrants being put up in hotels, controversy in Parliament over the new laws, and huge backlogs in dealing with asylum cases.

And again, at root, there is that contradiction, the government says it wants to bring the numbers down, but also is allowing record numbers of people to come from overseas to work, or seek refuge from Ukraine or move here from Hong Kong.

Repeating a slogan does not solve a problem, especially when a government is in a tug of war with itself.

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