February 10th 2010
Policy, particularly relating to sensitive areas, announced in the run-up to a general election, is always dangerous. Home Secretary Alan Johnson's dog-whistle proposals to curb immigration by placing stricter controls on overseas students fall into exactly that category.
No East Kent Member of Parliament would deny that the County has taken far more than its fair share of both legal and illegal economic migrants since this government came to office and we know only too well the strain on education, health and financial resources that that has placed upon Kent's ratepayers, a bill considerably unrecompensed by central government.
Back in August 1997, after incoming Home Secretary Jack Straw's relaxation of Michael Howard's immigration controls, I warned of a wave of economic migrants about to arrive from the Czech and Slovak Republics. Immigration Minister Mike O'Brien described that warning, on Radio Kent, as "the sort of thing that MPs like Roger Gale say during the silly season". In that Autumn, Michael Howard and I drove to London to see Mr. O'Brien and to reassert our concerns. Michael was not only the immediate past Home Secretary but a most experienced barrister with a sound knowledge of immigration law. The Home Office dismissed our representations, however, and what turned into a tidal wave of illegal entrants, via Sangatte, the Ferries and the Channel Tunnel, followed.
A succession of immigration Ministers (do you remember Barbara Roche?) announced "stringent" measures to get to grips with this problem, to no avail. More than a decade later we have convicted criminals released into society instead of being deported, benefits denied to ex-patriate UK citizens while other benefits are being paid to the absent EU resident families of migrant workers, Sangatte Mark Three continuing to feed illegal entrants into the United Kingdom and no real check on either entry to or departure from our country.
Alan Johnson's response to this, announced this week, is to tighten the English language qualification for overseas students, to impose a harsher financial regime and to deny entry to the families of short-term students. Some of what he has had to say, particularly in relation to the monitoring and recording of arrivals and departures, is welcome common sense and, indeed, chimes with Conservative policy announced some weeks ago. The rest, though, is a populist over reaction that will damage the interest of our Universities, our Further Education Colleges and our East Kent language schools.
Until now, overseas students have contributed a huge amount to the economy of further and higher education, have gone on to get good degrees and, returning home and succeeding in business, have brought needed and welcome further trade to the United Kingdom through the friends and contacts that they have made while studying here. Nor should we overlook the tourist value of returning foreign students bringing wives and children to visit their old haunts.
Many of these students have brushed up their English language skills in our language schools and further education colleges before progressing to degree courses at the University of Kent and Christ Church College. No surprise, then, that at the recent AGM of the University in Canterbury the Faculty warned of the damage that ill-thought through restrictions would have upon local finances.
We met with the current immigration Minister, Phil Woolas, a few weeks ago. Some twenty-five cross-party MPs, all representing the language school and University interest, sought to impress upon him the value of the overseas student trade to UK Limited.
It is clear that electoral opportunism and knee-jerk reaction to a perceived terrorist threat has weighed more heavily upon the Home Secretary that the views of even his own backbenchers.
We need to properly regulate immigration, certainly, but we have to hope that a future Home Secretary in the next government will strike a balance that is in our own country's economic and social interests and, while getting to grips with the real problem of illegal immigration, does not deter the genuine students who contribute so much through fees, through expenditure with host families and in our shops and restaurants and pubs and clubs, and through their many and varied cultures, to the coastal towns of East Kent.