Empty gestures

Angela SmithAngela Smith on the immigration, crime and justice elements of the government’s new legislative programme

Despite the headlines being dominated by Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, it’s clear that the big story the government wanted out of the Queens Speech is that it is the party that it is tough on immigration. 

The copy of the speech read by the Queen is on vellum, and takes 3 days for the ink to dry. So this programme isn’t just a response from the Coalition’s to its dreadful local election results, but also to what it sees as the growing threat from the right and UKIP. 

We support measures to ensure that immigration, which is important for the UK, is properly controlled, managed and fair. But the government’s programme promises to take action on issues where action has already been taken, where other government policies make it virtually impossible to deliver and where it hasn’t yet worked out how such action can be achieved. And all the while Ministers are proposing nothing to tackle the undercutting of local workers’ wages, terms and conditions through the exploitation of foreign workers.

Why are they not acting to improve enforcement of the national minimum wage which would have a real impact? Or extending the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to other sectors where we know abuse of the system and exploitation takes place? And where are measures to tackle the abuse of student visitor visas by bogus colleges and the backlog at the UK Borders Agency (UKBA) in finding failed asylum seekers?

The Coalition talks tough, but its actions don’t mirror the words. Last year, 900 fewer criminals were deported than in 2010 – a fall of 16%. The backlog in finding failed asylum seekers has gone up and the number of illegal immigrants deported has gone down. UKBA says that in 40% of cases they’ve not been able to deport individuals because of administrative problems with the Home Office and diplomatic complications. And it would be foolish to believe that budget cuts of 34% and staffing cuts of 5000 have not had an impact. 

We agree with strong and effective action against those who employ illegal immigrants but it is already illegal with fines of £10,000 for unknowingly doing so, and the option of a prison sentence for those aware of what they’ve done.  In many cases however, the real problem isn’t the law but enforcement of it – with 800 fewer businesses being fined last year than in 2010.  

Legislation is only effective if it is monitored and enforced – and in this case it clearly is not. The same applies to proposals to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour, made much more difficult by the government’s decision to cut 15,000 police officers.  Indeed, there are already worrying signs of the effects of stretched resources.  Last year, over 10,000 crimes of serious violence were dealt with through Community Resolution – which means no formal sanction, no criminal record and potentially just apologising to the victim – despite official guidance saying this shouldn’t happen. 

Ministers claim they wants to ensure a “faster, more effective” response to anti-social behaviour.  And yet the proposals for a ‘community trigger’ to replace the ASBO would mean people having to wait until three separate complaints or complaints from five different households have been made before agencies are compelled to act.  

Five complaints!  If you tell a complainant whose life is being blighted by anti-social behaviour that nothing will be done until four more complaints are made, they will rightly conclude that no-one cares enough to take action.

If the Coalition wants to be taken seriously on these issues it will take more than empty gestures.

Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is  a Shadow Home Office Minister in the Lords

Published 9th May 2013

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