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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 February, 2005, 11:43 GMT
Immigration: Party policies
An immigration officer searches a car
How do the party policies differ on asylum and immigration in the run up to the general election? BBC News sets out the key points.

What has the government announced?

Home Secretary Charles Clarke has set out a raft of new policies on immigration and asylum. Ministers are presenting the ideas as a five-year plan to update and modernise the system. But they also come hot on the heels of the Conservatives' decision to move immigration closer to the forefront in its campaigning strategy ahead of an expected spring general election.

So what are these new policies?

There are three prongs to the strategy: The first is to change the way we admit economic migrants - people who seek to work in the UK and may or may not settle here in the long-run.

The second prong represents further changes to the asylum system for assessing people seeking refuge. The final element of the package is how the government proposes to monitor immigration as a whole.

So what are the economic migration measures?

Charles Clarke is expected to announce that the UK will move to a "points-based" system.

The public are worried about this, they are worried rightly, because there are abuses of the immigration and asylum system
Prime Minister Tony Blair

This would be a new system for the UK but similar schemes already run in other industrialised nations such as Canada and Australia.

In essence, the more your skills are demanded, the more likely you are to be allowed in to work. It will probably replace the current complicated system of work permits relating to different sectors of the economy.

The government is also expected to try to restrict the rights of people working in the UK to permanently settle or bring in their extended families, although there is no indication that it is going to try to prevent spouses and children joining workers.

And the changes to asylum?

Ministers say they are going to further toughen up the system to prevent abuse. We can expect new measures to deal with people smugglers - the organised crime gangs who prey on people trying to cross borders into Europe.

We may also see more detention of failed asylum seekers as ministers believe this helps deal more quickly with removals. There may also be further reforms to how people can appeal against a refusal to stay - although there has been recent substantial change in this area.

What about monitoring immigration?

At present the UK has no system that exactly counts out everybody who comes and goes. The old paper system was scrapped in two stages: 1994 (under the Conservatives) and 1998 (under Labour) after officials concluded it was unworkable.

The new system, which has been in the pipeline for some time, aims to create "electronic borders" so that a computer does the counting. It will involve new hi-tech visas for entrants, probably with fingerprints, and is linked to plans for biometric passports and identity cards - UK resident foreigners are expected to be the first to get them.

So how do these differ from the Conservatives?

Both parties largely agree on the benefits of managed economic migration - but differ in its implementation.

Annual limit on immigration
Quotas for refugees
"Points" assessment for work permits
Drop international refugee agreement
More port security

The Conservatives say they will introduce Parliament-approved annual quotas (linked to a points system) for economic migration and, separately, asylum.

This contrasts sharply to the government which argues that you cannot set quotas for either economic migration or asylum.

Quotas will restore confidence in the immigration system, argues Conservative leader Michael Howard.

It says that the government is failing to deport failed asylum applicants and has generally lost control of the immigration system.

Are there other disagreements?

Yes. The Conservatives say they would withdraw from both the UN Convention on Refugees and elements of European human rights law. Michael Howard argues these reforms would give the UK control of its policy.

Labour however says international agreements, such as the closure of Sangatte refugee camp in Calais or departure controls at the Paris Eurostar terminal, improve the system.

Where are the similarities?

The latest issue is health screening. The Conservatives have put forward detailed proposals for how they would screen potential migrants for TB and HIV. Immigration officers already have powers to refer someone for testing on arrival in the UK, particularly TB.

But HIV testing is something the government has not done to date and an all-party Parliamentary group in 2003 concluded it would be counter-productive and increase the risk of people hiding the condition.

Michael Howard however says that testing would minimise the risks to the UK and the potential burden on the NHS.

Where else do the parties come close to each other?

Tough-talking, for a start: Michael Howard believes communities "cannot absorb newcomers at today's pace". Prime Minister Tony Blair has said the public are "worried rightly" about abuses of the asylum system. Labour and the Conservatives have both pledged more investment in border policing and port security.

The language used by spokesmen for both parties has however drawn fire from outside bodies like the Commission for Racial Equality. The Liberal Democrats accuse the government of pandering to the right-wing press and not doing enough to ensure the immigration and asylum systems are both fair and efficient.

So what would the Liberal Democrats do?

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy recently attacked both the Conservatives and Labour for fomenting "an artificial debate" on immigration. The party has called on the government to defend the principle of asylum and properly explain the realities of migration to the general public.

It also warns that tough talk on immigration could undermine good community relations. The party fully supports a European strategy to migration, saying that no country alone can influence or control an international phenomenon.


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