Keith writes that we should unite on immigration in the Sunday Express

Posted on April 2nd, 2013 in National

Keith wrote this article on immigration, published in the Sunday Express on 31st March 2013:

In the immortal words of Etta James, “At last!” Home Secretary Theresa May has finally put the UKBA (the United Kingdom “Backlog” Agency) out of its misery.

It is more than seven years since one of her predecessors John Reid gave it the last rites by declaring it not fit for purpose. This has surely been the longest funeral service in British history. There is no doubt that the UK Border Agency needed to go. Its inefficiency and incompetence had become legendary.

Its backlog of cases had reached a third of a million (the population of Iceland) and panic measures had resulted in effective amnesties for thousands of illegal immigrants: because the UKBA could not find them they assumed they had gone.

But why now? Mrs May’s announcement on Tuesday came at the end of an extraordinary period during which every major party leader decided to have his say on immigration policy.

First Ed Miliband announced a mea culpa for Labour’s mistakes. Then Nick Clegg did a U-turn on an amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Finally, last Monday David Cameron proposed benefit changes for migrants.

Policy changes, though welcome, are futile unless the organisation in charge is robust. The Home Affairs Committee’s last report on the UKBA was a devastating indictment of a management that failed to administer the £1billion budget skillfully and responsibly and whose leaders had, over the years, misled Parliament.

It is now essential that abolishing the UKBA and bringing it under the control of ministers does not become just a rebranding exercise.

Mark Sedwill, the Home Office’s new Permanent Secretary, appeared before the committee moments after Mrs May sat down in the Commons on Tuesday.

However, just as he was explaining the need to change the organisation his staff were leaking his own email to them in which Mr Sedwill said they would be doing “the same job, in the same place, with the same colleagues, for the same boss”. Not quite the root-and-branch reform we expected. His last job was ambassador to Afghanistan dealing with the Taliban. He will need all his diplomatic skills to sort this mess out. There has to be a ruthless change of personnel.

This should not be about structural changes on an organogram.

Almost every senior UKBA official has been promoted over the past few years. Many received sizable bonuses.

Policy changes, though welcome, are futile unless the organisation in charge is robust.
One of the last two CEOs, Lin Homer, now heads HM Revenue & Customs while current boss Rob Whiteman, whose workload halved when the border force was split up, will remain on the same salary even though his organisation has been abolished.

Closing the UKBA and returning it to the mother ship is an important first step.

The real test for the Home Office will be how it now deals with the wave of migration expected from Romania and Bulgaria from January.

The Government won’t give estimates of expected arrivals yet they are essential for policy from welfare benefits to the NHS.

Research needs to be commissioned and we need to start a dialogue with the Romanian and Bulgarian governments. The debate is in the end about numbers.

Statements about “the best and the brightest” are meaningless as every country wants to attract such people.

On this issue above all other we should listen to the British people. They have been incredibly tolerant but they cannot stand abuse of the system. I do not believe they want politicians to play the race card. They want the immigration game played fairly.

What is needed is not an arms race among our party leaders on immigration policy but a new consensus. As they did for the Royal Charter agreement after Leveson, Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband should sit down together and talk about this issue. By doing this they will deny fringe parties the opportunity to fill the vacuum and demonstrate to the British people they want to engage productively in addressing one the most challenging issues that our nation faces.