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New Labour’s Immigration Policy

A report on new labour immigration policy UK


The aim of the following report is to provide a summary and analysis of UK immigration policy under New Labour governments. The debates surrounding immigration policy have continued to cause political controversy since New Labour came into power in 1997. New Labour had hoped to speed up the immigration process to be fairer to potential immigrants and asylum seekers, whilst improving administrative efficiency, though it has faced difficulties in achieving its aims. The report will assess the effectiveness or otherwise of immigration policy and all areas of strengths and weaknesses will be examined. New Labour has found immigration policy a difficult area to handle; the reasons for such difficulty will be discussed in the report below. It must be mentioned that some direct influences upon immigration policy are outside of the UK government’s direct control. For instance, the expansion of the European Union (EU) with its corresponding increase in the number of people that are free to enter the country. Whilst increases in wars, civil wars, and repression by authoritarian regimes across the globe can often lead to more people wishing to claim asylum or refugee status.

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New Labour and immigration policy

Immigration policy has always been an issue that has been capable of producing controversy and debate within British politics and society, with the media sometimes being particularly influential. Policy is sometimes shaped or altered by that debate, and in the past has convinced governments that immigration policy has had to be completely changed. Since the early 1960s successive British governments had sought to limit immigration into the UK.[1] New Labour was keen to make immigration policy fairer without encouraging higher levels of immigration. UK immigration policy was already faced with difficulties when New Labour came into office. Making decisions as to whether people were legal immigrants, illegal immigrants, refugees, or asylum seekers was a complicated process. The number of asylum seekers increased slowly but surely during the 1990s as a result of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Afghanistan, as well as other countries. The Conservatives tried to halt that increase by denying right of appeal and withdrawing social security payments to failed asylum seekers.[2]

New Labour reversed some of the Conservatives policies aimed at reducing immigration. For example, returning failed asylum seekers to their home countries if those countries were considered safe was no longer done automatically, and some of the restrictions with regard to social security payments were reduced. New Labour also reintroduced the right to appeal for those that were refused entry or leave to remain in the UK. These initial reductions in immigration control have to a great extent being reversed.[3]

New Labour’s initial liberalisation of immigration policy was not destined to last long. Whilst New Labour was reducing the UK’s immigration controls other EU states, Germany and France in particular were increasing theirs. Tighter German and French immigration controls meant that that more asylum seekers came to the UK, which placed a strain on the immigration system and tested the resolve of New Labour to maintain its more liberal immigration policy. The immigration system was unable to cope with the volume of asylum seekers; the appeal process was slow and caused a large backlog of cases waiting to be decided. The problems with immigration policy were widely reported by the media and were used by both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to criticise New Labour. New Labour responded by making its immigration policy less liberal, attempting to improve the administration of the immigration system and by reducing the number of asylum seekers allowed into the country. New Labour was able to persuade the French government to close down the Sangette Refugee Centre, which was close to the Eurotunnel terminal and allowed asylum seekers to get in to the UK. New Labour resorted to some of the measures previously used by the Conservatives to restrict immigrants, such as sending failed asylum seekers back to the countries deemed to be safe, speeding up appeal times and making people appeal from abroad.[4] New Labour argued that restricting immigration policy would help reduce support for extreme parties such as the British National Party that have received strong electoral support in areas like Burnley and Oldham.[5]

The expansion of the EU has affected the immigration policy of New Labour. New member states citizens have rights to work and live in the UK. Citizens from Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, have immigrated to the UK to find work. Official statistics show that the Poles were the largest national groups of approved immigrants in 2004, with 26,600 being allowed into the UK.[6] New Labour underestimated the number of people from Eastern Europe that would enter the UK after their countries joined the EU, which prompted ministers to consider work permits for those people from Bulgaria and Romania who wished to come to the UK from January 2007.[7]

An important part of New Labour immigration policy is attracting skilled and semi-skilled immigrants and their families into the UK. Firstly these workers are wanted to fill skilled jobs, which means that they should be net contributors of tax and national insurance contributions. The controlled immigration of skilled workers adds to the UK’s resources rather than taking away from them. Secondly, young skilled and semi-skilled workers are encouraged to come to the UK to reduce the economic consequences of an ageing population; it is hoped that they will help to pay for the pensions, and public services of everybody that lives in the UK. New Labour has adopted its immigration policy to score potential immigrants against a series of criteria that assess their skills for potential employers. Those workers that score the highest points are the people that find it easiest to gain entry into the UK.[8] The terms of accession for the Eastern European states means that immigrants do not have to be skilled or semi-skilled workers to enter the UK. However, unskilled workers may find it more difficult to find long-term work and are perhaps more likely to need social security benefits.[9] East European immigrant workers have, like previous immigrants, not found themselves welcomed by everyone, as some people believe that they are taking away jobs from British workers. Immigrant workers are often prepared to accept lower wages, yet in many cases they are taking jobs that few British workers want.[10]

Critics of New Labour’s immigration policy have argued that the UK received more immigrants due to fewer restrictions being in place, such as work permits and less entitlement to social security benefits. Some also believe that New Labour immigration policy is so ineffective that it hardly constitutes a policy at all. An example of New Labour’s inability to administer its immigration policy was the resignation of the junior minister Beverley Hughes over the fast tracking of visas.[11] In 2005, Home Secretary John Reid went as far as describing the Immigration and Nationalities Directorate as ‘not been fit for purpose’ due to its failure to deport foreign prisoners after the completion of their sentences.[12] There has certainly been frequent media coverage about current levels of immigration being unsustainable for the UK’s health, education, and social security infrastructures. Some of these articles are well researched and plausible, whilst others amount to scare mongering. Former New Labour minister Frank Field argues that the present rate of immigration into the UK is unsustainable, especially if the present net population gains continue at 2004 rates, or indeed if they increase which is possible due to Romania and Bulgaria joining the EU. Official figures show that 329,000 immigrants entered the UK from the new EU member states between 2004 and 2006. Field claims that such migration ‘is producing the equivalent of a new city of Birmingham every five years.’[13]

These people that believe New Labour immigration policy has become too restrictive argue that right wing media, pressure groups such as Migrationwatch UK, and the Conservatives have set the agenda over immigration. As with previous restrictions of immigration policy the fear that the Far Right might make electoral gains has been another reason or excuse to restrict immigration.[14] With the exception of a few isolated backbenchers the Labour party has accepted its leadership adoption of more restrictive immigration policy. For instance, New Labour MPs voted for the Immigration Act 2002 which introduced detention centres for asylum seekers and the provision of citizenship lessons for those immigrants that were allowed to live in the UK. New Labour claimed that the new legislation restricted immigration, whilst protecting the human rights of asylum seekers. The bill was only passed because the government made concessions about the location of detention centres to the House of Lords.[15] The Liberal Democrats have been the most vocal opponents of New Labour shifts in immigration policy. The Liberal Democrats believe that New Labour has failed to liberalise immigration policy and that claims that they wish to protect the human rights of asylum seekers or immigrants are just a sham. Former Home Secretary David Blunkett was certainly enthusiastic about restricting New Labour immigration policy and reducing the number of asylum seekers, a stance his successors will probably continue. The Liberal Democrats have even tried to complain to the Commission for Racial Equality about what they claim is New Labour’s racist immigration policy.[16]

Official statistics have shown declining numbers of asylum seekers and higher numbers of people being returned to their countries of origin. Whereas previously New Labour made public declarations of making immigration policy fairer and less restrictive, it now shows figures depicting falling immigrant numbers that prove tighter and controls are working better.[17]

Home Office figures frequently show that 70% of asylum applications fail. It was just taking longer to turn down people when 18,000 applications, a quarter were being received, like the number of applications that were made in the first quarter of 2002.[18] The immigration that New Labour has tried to restrict differed from previous periods of immigration in that as would be immigrants were not form the New Commonwealth countries but from Eastern Europe or from places such as Somalia and Afghanistan troubled by violence or the disintegration of their state.[19]

New Labour claims that its immigration policy has started to deliver ‘a fair, fast, and firm system’. The backlog in asylum and immigration applications meant that the government adopted pragmatic, as well as restrictive measures to speed up the immigration process and increase administrative efficiency. The first obvious measure was to prevent potential asylum seekers reaching the UK in the first place, by securing ports and airports, as well as preventing boarding the Eurostar trains in France. Improving administrative efficiency was helped by employing some extra 2,000 people within the Home Office to deal with immigration work. Extra staff contributed to more than 84% of first decisions being made within two months of applications being received. The issuing of identity cards and the finger printing of all asylum seekers has allowed for more people being deported and fewer being able to remain illegally within the UK. Overall New Labour contends that the total of asylum applications has dropped by 70% since October 2002.[20] New Labour believes that simplifying the appeals structure and making failed asylum seekers appeal from abroad has contributed to the fall in asylum applications. The Asylum and Immigration Tribunal that replaced the previously more complicated appeals system from 2005 is considered an important part of its drive towards increased administrative efficiency.[21]

When it came to power New Labour had intended to liberalise immigration policy into the UK. If that liberalisation of immigration policy had been sustained it would have marked a break from the progressively restrictive policies of Conservative and Labour governments since the 1960s. The administration of the immigration service had started to be strained in the last years of the Conservative government as worsening conditions in countries such as the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Afghanistan had led to more people seeking asylum. The liberalisation of immigration policy by New Labour inadvertently led to making the strain on the immigration service worse. Restoring the right of appeal to failed asylum seekers, the relaxation of restrictions to social security benefits when combined with a large increase in asylum applications made for a chaotic backlog in which the government seemed to lose control of immigration policy. New Labour had to take pragmatic measures to end the backlog by making it harder for people to enter the UK illegally, and by employing more staff to deal with the backlog.

New Labour had political reasons for reversing its liberalisation of immigration policy that carried more weight than practical reasons for restoring administrative control of the situation. New Labour despite its huge majorities in the 1997 and 2001 general elections did not wish to lose electoral support to the Conservatives or other right wing parties like the BNP due to its immigration policy being considered too soft. New Labour did not set the agenda over immigration policy; the Conservatives, pressure groups, and the media set it. More restrictive immigration policy and the effect of improved administrative practices helped to lower the number of asylum seekers from its peak in October 2002. However, for right wing critics of New Labour its immigration policy could never be restrictive enough, whilst for the Liberal Democrats and other left wing critics New Labour has betrayed its promises of respecting the human rights of immigrants and asylum seekers for its own electoral gain. Perhaps the most contentious area of New Labour immigration policy relates to the immigration of people from the new member states of the EU. These people have greater rights to enter the UK than people from outside of the EU. The long term economic benefits or costs of this migration are not yet clear, although the arrival of immigrants has not proved to be popular and has caused resentment about lower wages and the taking of jobs from British workers.

The main recommendation from this report is that New Labour makes the administration of its immigration policy as efficient as possible. Poor organisation and lack of resources made the backlog of immigration cases worse. New Labour needs to commit enough well trained staff to ensure its immigration policy has direction and works. New Labour should also collect accurate information regarding levels of immigration, and adjust its policy accordingly, as a government it should focus on effective policy rather than spin.


Bright M, Wazir B, & Flatt E, The Observer December 1 2002 – Onward march of lobby against immigration

Coxall B, Robins L & Leach R (2003) Contemporary British Politics 4th edition, Palgrave, Basingstoke

Field F, Daily Mail 30th June 2006, Why are politicians ignoring the immigration timebomb?

Fisher J, Denver D, & Benyon J, (2003) Central Debates in British Politics, Longman, London

Hume M, 2 April 2004 – New Labour’s problem is disintegration, not immigration www.spiked-online.com

Kingdom J (2003) Government and Politics in Britain, An Introduction 3rd edition, Polity Press, Cambridge

Moran M, (2005) Politic and Governance in the UK, Palgrave, Basingstoke

Schott B, (2006) Schott’s Almanac 2007, Bloomsbury, London

The Guardian, November 7 2002 – Asylum bill becomes law

Whitaker’s, (2007) Whitaker’s Almanack 2007 – today’s world in one volume, A & C Black, London

Young H, (2003) supping with the Devils – Political writing from Thatcher to Blair, Guardian Books, London

www.labour.org.uk – Asylum and Immigration



[1] Fisher et al, (2003) p. 5

[2] Young, (20030 p. 230

[3] Kingdom, (2003), p.198

[4] Young, (2003), p.246

[5] Kingdom, (2003), p.198

[6] Whitaker’s Almanack, (2007), p.18

[7] www.labour.org.uk

[8] Moran, (2005) p. 49

[9] Whitaker’s Almanack, (2007) p. 18

[10] Young (2003) p. 246

[11] Spiked-online.com, 2 April 2004

[12] Schott, (2007) pp. 45-7

[13] Frank Field, Daily Mail 30th June 2006

[14] Bright et al, The Observer December 1 2002

[15] The Guardian, November 7 2002

[16] Kingdom, (2003), p.198

[17] Coxall et al, (2003), p.394

[18] Kingdom, (2003), p.195

[19] Coxall et al, (2003), p.20

[20] www.labour.org.uk

[21] Whitaker’s Almanack (2007) p. 344


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