David Cameron's immigration speech

Speech on immigration and welfare reform.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Lord Cameron

Prime Minister

Thank you very much for that introduction, and congratulations to everyone who’s battled through the snow and ice to be here today. And it’s great to be here in Ipswich at the University Campus Suffolk. This is an important time for this young and growing university. With pioneering research and business start-up incubators, UCS is playing an important role in the economic development of this region. And with some 500 students from 70 different countries of origin outside the European Union, it is also a natural place to talk about something I see as a vital part of our economic strategy, which is immigration.

Now, I’ve always had a clear view about immigration. I believe that immigration has brought significant benefits to Britain, from Polish heroes who fought for us during the war to West Indians who helped us to rebuild afterwards; from those who’ve come to our shores seeking a safe haven from persecution, to those who’ve come to make a better life for themselves and their families and, in the process, have enriched our society by working hard, taking risks and creating jobs and wealth for the whole country.

Our migrant communities are a fundamental part of who we are and Britain is a far richer and stronger society because of them, whether it’s great scientists, doctors, medical practitioners, artists, musicians, sports stars or business leaders, entrepreneurs, hard-walking – working businessmen and women. So many Great Britons today have family histories that have brought them to these shores. This is our island story: open, diverse and welcoming, and I am immensely proud of it.

But while I’ve always believed in the benefits of migration and immigration, I’ve also always believed that immigration has to be properly controlled. Without proper controls, community confidence is sapped, resources are stretched and the benefits that immigration can bring are lost or forgotten. As I’ve long‑argued, under the previous government immigration was far too high and the system was badly out of control. Net migration needs to come down radically from hundreds of thousands a year, to just tens of thousands, and as we bring net migration down so we must also make sure that Britain continues to benefit from it.

Now, that means ensuring that those who do come here are the brightest and the best, the people we really need, with the skills and entrepreneurial talent to help create the British jobs and growth that will help us to win in the global race. And it also means ensuring that the system is fair so that we support the aspirations of hard-working people who want to get on in life. This is about building the aspiration nation that I’ve been speaking about.

Now, today I want to set out the steps that we are taking to achieve this. But, first of all, let me address head-on three of the arguments some people make about this whole question of immigration. Now first, there are those who say you can’t have a sensible debate because it’s somehow wrong to express concerns about immigration. Now I think this is nonsense.

Yes, of course it needs to be approached in a sensitive and a rational manner, but I’ve always understood the concerns – the genuine concerns of hard-working people, including many in our migrant communities, who worry about uncontrolled immigration. They worry about the pressure it puts on public services, the rapid pace of change in some of our communities and of course the concerns, deeply held, that some people might be able to come and take advantage of our generosity without making a proper contribution to our country.

Now, these concerns, they’re not just legitimate; they are right. And it’s the fundamental duty of every mainstream politician to address them. Now, that is why I called for reform and clear limits in opposition, and why Theresa May and I have been delivering on this agenda from our very first days in government. Now second, there are those who say, ‘Well, you can talk about it all you like, but of course you can’t actually control immigration, not in a modern globalised world where people move about so freely.’ Again, I believe this is simply not the case.

If you look at the evidence from the last three years, for instance, we have already stopped bogus colleges from bringing people in, colleges which were set up as a front to bring people here not for study but to stay here by coming through the back door. We’ve shut-down entire entry roots in the points-based system and we’ve improved the asylum system. And to those who think you can’t have a properly functioning asylum system without somehow being cruel, I think the opposite is true again in this case.

Let me be clear, Britain will always offer a welcome to people fleeing persecution, as we’ve done throughout our history. And I’m proud of the fact that we not only have a better asylum system, but we’re also the first government to end child detention by putting the welfare of the child at the heart of the decision and removals process. Now, of course, we have a long way to go. Not least, as today’s report from the Home Affairs Select Committee shows.

We face the big task, the huge task, of turning around the tanker that is the UK Border Agency. And the Home Secretary will be setting out the next stages of the reforms that we need very shortly. But already in government we have cut net migration by a third, down from more than a quarter of a million a year to just over 160,000. And my Party has set a clear aspiration to reduce net migration further to just tens of thousands over the coming years.

Now, of course many people come to Britain through our membership of the European Union. We are part of a single market that is vital for trade and growth and jobs, and the free movement of people is a necessary part of that single market. Our membership of the European Union allows British people free movement to travel, to live and to work in other European countries and some 1.4 million British citizens exercise that right, including several hundred thousand, for instance, in Spain alone.

Now, the same freedom of movement is true for EU nationals coming to Britain, but when new countries join the European Union it is important to put in place transitional controls and it’s wrong that this didn’t happen with Poland and the other countries that joined the EU in 2004. My Party argued very clearly at the time those controls should have been put in place. And let me also be clear, under this government there will always be transitional controls introduced when a new country joins, as we’ve seen with Bulgaria and Romania, and as there will be when Croatia joins this year.

In fact, in recent years, the numbers coming here from the European Union and the numbers leaving here to go and live in other EU countries, they have been broadly – they have broadly been in balance. And that’s one of the reasons why it’s been possible for me to make credible pledges about getting net migration down, because we’ve been able to focus on those coming from outside the European Union.

But from the beginning of next year, the transitional controls on Bulgaria and Romania will be lifted. That means Romanians and Bulgarians will have the right to come here and to work here, because they’ll have the same rights as other EU citizens. Now some Romanians and Bulgarians are in fact already working here under the permitted work scheme, and the record is that those who’ve come generally work hard, pay their taxes and are valued by their employers.

But – so we can’t stop these full transitional controls coming to an end, but what we can do is make sure that those who come here from the EU or from further afield do so for the right reasons. That they come here because they want to contribute to our country, not because they’re drawn by the attractiveness of our benefits system or by the opportunity to use our public services, and today I’m going to tell you how we’re going to do this.

Now third, there are those who say – in terms of these arguments you hear, there are those who say you can’t control immigration without damaging your economic policy and again I think this is wrong too. Let me give you two examples. There were some who said that our cap on economic migrants from outside the European economic area would damage business. But let’s look at what actually happened. The cap has played a part in controlling migration, but not one business request has been rejected because of the limit, and not one scientist or engineer has been turned down for lack of space. Our limit on economic migrants, which we set at 20,700, has been undersubscribed each and every month since it was introduced, with businesses using only half their monthly quotas.

Now another example, relevant in a university like this, is that when we said we would clamp down on bogus students, some people thought that would damage our universities, but the number of applications to study at British universities has actually gone up, including right here at University College Suffolk. Now, we want the best and the brightest students in the world to come and choose our universities, so we’ve said no cap on student numbers at our world-class universities. Our universities are able to get out there and market themselves around the world on the basis that any genuine student in any country in the world who earns a place at one of our universities and has a basic English qualification, they will be able to come and study here.

As I’ve said, we want the best and the brightest and we want the best and the brightest innovators and entrepreneurs as well to choose Britain at the best place to start their next business. So, we’ve said 2,000 extra places for graduate entrepreneurs including 1,000 for MBA graduates and new support to back foreign investors and entrepreneurs, including those who are starting small-scale but could end up running the blue chip businesses of tomorrow.

So, let me put this very simply: we are rolling out the red carpet to those whose hard work and investment will create new British jobs, because we are in a global race for our economic future. And the right sort of immigration is not just good for Britain – it is, I would argue, essential. But we can’t allow immigration to be a substitute for training our own workforce and giving them incentives to work. Our immigration policy can’t be a sort of add-on to our economic strategy; it’s got to be a fundamental part of it.

And there is, if you like – and I think this is one of the most important points about this whole debate – there is an absolutely fundamental connection between our welfare and our training policies on the one hand, and our immigration policy on the other. I see them as two sides of the same coin. It is our failure in the past to reform welfare and training that meant that we left too many of our young people in a system where they didn’t have proper skills, they didn’t have proper incentives to work, and instead we saw large numbers of people coming from overseas to fill vacancies in our economy. Put simply, our job is to educate and train up our youth not to rely on immigration to fill the skills gaps.

Consider this: even at the end of the so-called boom years, there were around five-million people in our country of working age but on out-of-work benefits. And this included – and I think this is a staggering statistic – at the end of that boom, with all that growth that we’d had, there were 450,000 British 18 to 24 year olds on Job Seekers’ Allowance. And that had happened at the same time as the largest wave of migration in our country’s history. That shows how badly wrong we’ve been getting this issue and this vital connection between welfare reform and training on the one hand, and immigration policy on the other.

So, welfare and training reform are a key part of our approach to immigration. Indeed, one of the problems that government has had in the past when it comes to immigration is that it’s been working in silos. Controlling immigration has been a job for the Home Office, but the reality is you can’t control immigration if you have a welfare system that takes no account of who it’s paying out to. You can’t control immigration if you have a healthcare system that takes no account of the people using it. And you can’t control immigration if you have a housing policy that doesn’t take account of how long people have lived and contributed to a local area.

So, under my direction, all this is changing, and today I want to tell you how. Let me start with the system we inherited when the Coalition Government was formed. Under the last government, immigration in this country, as I’ve said, was too high and out of control. Put simply, Britain was a soft touch. Look at the numbers that have been coming in. In 2010 alone 591,000 people came here intending to stay for a year or more. Across the last decade that number is a staggering 5.6 million.

Now, of course, some migrants stay for a period and then return home and at the same time, of course, you’ve got a number of British people are choosing to live abroad. So, it’s right that we look at net migration: the difference between those coming and leaving. But this has been out of control too. Between 1997 and 2009, net migration to Britain totalled more than 2.2 million people. That is more than twice the population of Birmingham, and it was over a quarter of a million in 2010 alone. Now, it’s not just that the numbers were out of control; we had no real control over the skills of the people we were bringing in.

What happened was this: the last government borrowed the phrase ‘points-based system’ from the set-up in Australia, but they produced something very, very different. In theory it sounded great: the idea that each and every potential migrant is carefully and personally assessed, with only those scoring the most points able to entry – enter the country. But in practice this wasn’t a system of points for individuals; it was a range of low minimum thresholds where anyone who met them was automatically entitled to come here almost on a self-selection basis to work and study – and in many cases, to bring their dependents too.

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Consider this, in the so-called Tier 1 of the system, we were supposed to be welcoming the best of the best: people deemed to be so good they could come here without any job offer waiting for them, and our doors were always open to them.

But the reality was different. As one study found, as many as a third of these people only found low-skilled roles working as shop assistants in takeaways or as security guards. Those who did have job offers, in what was called Tier 2, were still often coming here to do low-skilled work: jobs which many people on welfare could have been trained to do. There was even, extraordinarily, a tier specifically created for those with no skills at all. Now why would you want to create such a tier?

And then, of course, there was a student tier which was so unselective that it allowed people who didn’t speak a word of English to come and study at low level, or even bogus colleges, in other words places that weren’t really colleges of education at all. Now, it is hard to believe the system could be such a mess, but the truth is that even now, as we dig deeper and deeper into the details, we’re still finding things.

Take this, for example: we’ve discovered there was a loophole that allowed migrants who no longer have a right to work here, and in some cases don’t even have the right to be here at all, to carry on claiming some benefits. Now, we are using a power under our 2012 Welfare Reform Act to close this. And by taking radical action to deal with this completely out of control system, we’ve begun to get net migration down radically.

We’ve completely shut down the route which allowed low-skilled people to come here with their dependents, without so much as a job offer waiting for them. We’ve capped the number of economic migrants from outside the European economic area. We’ve stopped almost 600 colleges bringing in thousands of bogus foreign students, revoking the licenses of over 300 of these colleges in the process. We’ve radically toughened up the tests migrants face before they come here, including making them prove that they can speak English, and we’re drastically increasing the use of face-to-face interviews for countries in routes from which there has previously been abuse.

We’re breaking the link between work and settlement, so that only those who contribute the most economically will be able to stay long-term. And we’ve cut the list of occupations; where we have a shortage of skills, those are the occupations where we permit employers to recruit migrant workers without trying to recruit from the UK labour market first. In 2010, the number of workers employed in job titles where there were skill shortages was around 0.5 million; it’s now just 180,000, less than 1% of the UK workforce. So, good progress, but a lot more to do.

We’ve made significant changes to our policies in the Home Office to get net migration down, but now what we need to do is to work across government so that our immigration policy is factored into our benefits system, our health system and our housing system. And let me set out how we are going to do this: by stopping our benefits system from being such a soft touch; by making entitlement to our key public services something migrants earn, not an automatic right; and by bringing the full force of government together to crack down on illegal working. And let me take each of these in turn.

On benefits: right now the message through the benefit system is all wrong. It says that if you can’t find a job or you drop out of work early, the British taxpayer owes you a living for as long as you like, no matter how little you have contributed to social security since you arrived.

Now, my view is simple. Ending the ‘something for nothing’ culture is something that needs to apply in the immigration system as well as in the welfare system. So, by the end of this year and before the controls on Bulgarians and Romanians are lifted, we are going to strengthen the test that determines which migrants can access benefits. And we’re going to give migrants from the EEA – from the European Economic Area – a very clear message. Just like British citizens, there is no absolute right to unemployment benefit. The clue is in the title: Jobseeker’s Allowance is only available to those who are genuinely seeking a job.

You will be subject to full conditionality and work search requirements and you’ll have to show you’re genuinely seeking employment. And if you fail that test, you will lose your benefit. And, as a migrant, we’re only going to give you six months to be a jobseeker. After that, benefits will be cut off unless you really can prove not just that you are genuinely seeking employment but also that you have a genuine chance of getting a job. We are going to make that assessment a real and robust one and, yes, it also will include whether your ability to speak English is a barrier to work.

And to migrants who are in work but then lose their jobs, the same rules will apply. Six months and then, if you can’t show you have a genuine chance of getting a job, benefits will be cut off. That means that EEA migrants who don’t have a genuine chance of getting work after six months will lose their right to access certain benefits. So, yes, of course they can still come and stay here if they want to, but the British taxpayer will not go endlessly paying for them anymore.

Now, we’re also going to take forward negotiations with European partners to explore whether we can make economically inactive migrants the responsibility of their home country before they gain any eligibility for UK benefits, and also whether we can work with like-minded European partners to limit the amount we pay in child benefit towards the upkeep of children living abroad.

Now second, public services. The same approach of ending the ‘something for nothing’ culture needs to apply to our public services. Our National Health Service, our NHS, is one of this country’s greatest assets. And it’s right that when people come here legitimately, they should be able to use it. But we should be clear. What we have is a free national health service, not a free international health service.

So, let me put it very simply: we’re going to get much better at proper reciprocal charging. Wherever we can claim back the cost of NHS care, we will. If someone visiting the UK from another EEA country uses our NHS, then it is right that they or their government pay for it. British taxpayers should support British families and those who contribute to our economy. And for migrants from outside the EEA, we want to introduce stricter charging or a requirement for private health insurance to cover the costs of NHS care.

Now, the same should apply to social housing. Again, we cannot have a culture of something for nothing. New migrants should not expect to be given a home on arrival. And yet at present almost one in ten new social lettings go to foreign nationals. So, I am going to introduce new statutory housing allocation guidance this spring to create a local residence test. Now, what this should mean is that local people rightly get priority in the social housing system. And migrants will need to have lived here and contributing – contributed to this country for at least two years before they can qualify.

Now, finally, as the Deputy Prime Minister set out on Friday, we’re going to radically toughen up the way we deal with illegal migrants working in this country. Frankly, right now, today it is too easy to be an illegal migrant in Britain. It’s too easy to get a driving license, get a house without a check on your immigration status. So we are legislating to make sure illegal migrants can’t have driving licenses. I’ve already said how we’re changing the rules on social housing. I now want us to make sure that private landlords check their tenants’ immigration status with consequences for those rogue landlords who fail to do so.

We’re going to take tough action against rogue businesses which use illegal labour to evade tax and minimum wage laws, including by doubling the fines levied against employers who employ illegal workers. We will also shine a light on the recruitment and employment practices of those who seek an unfair competitive advantage and deny work opportunities to UK workers. And we’re going to be undertaking further targeted operations this summer, bringing together key enforcement bodies to form a series of local and national taskforces to focus on abuse in particular sectors and regions, including agricultural work in East Anglia.

We’re going to make it easier to check the right to work entitlements through a single follow-up check when a migrant’s leave is due to expire. We’re working with the financial services industry to stop illegal migrants from obtaining credit cards, loans and opening bank accounts. We’re already rolling out a new single, secure form of identification – the biometric residence permit – from those outside the EEA, to make it easier to identify illegal migrants in the first place.

And, once we’ve found them, we’re going to make it easier to remove them: faster deportation; stopping the payment of legal aid for the vast majority of immigration appeals; and we’re even going to look at how we can change the law so that wherever possible people are deported first and they can appeal second from their home country. Put simply, when it comes to illegal migrants, we should actually be rolling up that red carpet, and showing them the door.

So, that’s how we’re changing immigration in this country. Getting net migration down radically. Making sure that the people who come here, wherever they come from, are coming for the right reasons. Breaking out of the old government silos and making immigration a centrepiece of our economic policy, so that we train our young people to fill more of the jobs being created in our economy with genuine incentives to work, and so we attract the hardworking, wealth creators who can help us to win in the global race.

The new British citizenship test is coming in today and, in my view, that sums up very clearly the kind of values that make us the country we are. We want people who are interested in what they can offer to Britain, to contribute to and to enrich our communities. That sense of fairness is what matters most. You put into Britain, you don’t just take out. And if you put in, we will stand with you. That’s how it is in this country. That’s how it should be and that is how it will be for anyone who wants to come here.

Thank you very much indeed for listening. Thank you very much. Thank you very much. We’ve got some time for some questions and there’s a roving microphone.


Prime Minister, James Landale, BBC. Your critics say that these proposals are actually quite limited, that you are talking tough but not actually being that tough. Can you tell us how many fewer people do you expect actually not to come here as a result of these changes?

Prime Minister

Well first of all, I – sorry.

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Prime Minister

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I don’t accept that this is tough talk but no action. I would say completely the opposite. I’ve always thought the problems in the past was governments talking and talking about immigration but not actually doing anything. This government has taken very concrete steps already: closing down the 300 bogus colleges; putting in place a limit on economic migration; scrapping whole tiers of the points system. These are the things that have helped to create a situation where net migration has fallen by a third.

But the next stage of reform is to say, ‘Let’s not just reform the immigration system. Let’s make sure the housing system, the welfare system, the legal aid system, all of these things actually fit in – the health system – fit in with our immigration policy,’ sending a very clear message that people can come and work, but they can’t come for the wrong reasons.

Now, I’m confident when you take all our changes together that we’re going to make further progress towards getting net migration down to tens of thousands. That is what I want us to do. I think it is perfectly achievable. The government achieved it in the 1980s, and when it did it had another spin-off benefit, which is that immigration was no longer an important issue of national debate.

And that is something that I think Britain would benefit from as well: that if we get this balance right, really reforming our welfare and our training policies – so we train British people up for those jobs that are available – properly controlling immigration so that net migration is in the tens of thousands, it will fall away as a political issue and we will have settled properly an issue that the British public wants us robustly and reasonably to engage in. At the back.


Thank you, Jason Groves from The Daily Mail. We’re already being taken to court by Brussels over various aspects of the benefit crackdown. Are you confident that you can get this through, and are you frustrated by the approach that Brussels takes?

And could I just ask you quickly on health also: in the wake of the Mid Staffs scandal, what needs to be done to restore public confidence in the NHS?

Prime Minister

Okay, on – look, of course it’s frustrating when sometimes you’re battling against legal objections, or community objections, to do the right thing; there can be frustrations. I’m confident that the package we have here is deliverable and will make a difference. And I think what is good about it is it’s the fruit of a process I set up months ago, where I put Mark Harper, the Immigration Minister, in charge of a whole Committee in Whitehall that’s got the Health Minister, the Housing Minister, the Legal Aid Minister, the Welfare Minister, so we can make all these changes. And I’m confident we can make those changes; that they will be meaningful. And, if anyone does challenge them, we will fight back very robustly because I think this is absolutely within the spirit of what national governments are able to do within Europe, while respecting, as I said, the need to have the free movement of people, which is part of the single market.

On the NHS, I think the most important thing is for the NHS to focus on the patients, to focus on the users. And that is why I put such high regard on the friends and family test – that every hospital should carry out this test asking the staff, asking the patients, ‘Are you happy for your friends and family to be treated in this hospital?’ And if we raise the profile of that, if it’s on every ward in every hospital, then when you’ve got a problem – as we did at Mid Staffs and you had, you know, a really quite small proportion of the staff working there saying they were happy with the hospital – the amber and the red lights will be flashing far, far faster and we’ll take action much quicker. But in the end it’s all about making sure we get back some basic thoughts in the NHS about standards of care, about care and attention for patients and making sure we do right by them; that is the key and I’m very convinced that we’ve got the right plans in place to make that happen. Gentleman at the back, and we’ll have one more after that.


County Councillor Christopher Hudson from Framlingham. Prime Minister, welcome to Suffolk. Your comments are most welcome indeed. I wonder if in the light of the growing debacle and fiasco that we see in Cyprus, whether or not you can reassure the British public on the way we go with the Euro and the increasing nightmare?

Prime Minister

Well, on the issue of Cyprus, first of all I think it is good that an agreement has been reached overnight, and I think that is welcome for people in Cyprus. I think the first proposals of taxing people’s bank accounts under £100,000 was a complete mistake, and I’m glad that has been avoided.

I think, from Britain’s point of view, the situation in Cyprus is a reminder of a couple of important home truths. The first is it was right not to join the Euro. We’re better off outside the Euro; we can have our own economic policy, our own monetary policy and mend our fragile economy, which is badly in need of that mending.

But I think the second lesson is that, while it is very difficult, there isn’t an alternative to getting on top of our deficit, to getting our public spending under control, to making our economy more prone to growth. Those difficult steps the government’s taking; there’s no alternative to that and I think people can see that when they switch on their televisions and see what is happening in other parts of Europe. But certainly we are good friends of the people of Cyprus; we have many connections there, we have many British people living there, and we also have the direct responsibility for the soldiers and the MOD personnel and the Foreign Office personnel. And we’ve made very clear that they will be properly protected, and we’re doing everything we can on that front. Final question, I think. Lady in the back.


Thank you. Thank you for coming to Suffolk, Prime Minister, very nice to see you here. I am Rebecca Crerar; I’m the Team Manager at Suffolk Refugee Support, which is a charity helping asylum seekers and refugees in this area.

I’d like some reassurance from you about the clients that I see every day, who have been waiting very patiently for their asylum decisions to be resolved – their cases. They’re very keen to work, but they’re not allowed to work whilst they’re waiting, and they’re costing the public purse a lot of money whilst they’re waiting because they’re being housed. They were told that by July 2011 their cases would be resolved and they haven’t been. I just wondered if you could give me some reassurance of how I, how I reassure those people every day that you’re doing everything you can to get those people either out of the country if their cases aren’t good, or helping them to stay in this country and get on with their lives and put some money back into the tax system? Thank you.

Prime Minister

Well, first of all, thank you very much for what you do; it is absolutely vital work that when people come here claiming asylum that they’re properly looked after and we’re generous in the way that we treat them.

The point you make is very valid, because there’s nothing fair or compassionate about a system that leaves people hanging on for such a long time. So, I make three points: one is we’ve got to turn round the cases faster; we are making some progress on that, but as the report out today shows there’s still much more progress that needs to be made.

The second thing is, while I know it is tough and difficult to say to asylum seekers, ‘I’m afraid you’re not allowed to work while your claim is being processed,’ it is the right decision. I think if we said you could work, we would create yet another ‘pull factor’, as the boffins call it, attracting people to come here, and that would be a mistake.

But I think it does link to the third point I want to make, which flows through this speech, which is: I think if we send a clearer signal right across the world about what Britain does welcome and what Britain does want – of course, we’ll welcome asylum seekers genuinely seeking asylum and take them to our hearts as we have over centuries. And of course people who can legitimately come here and work or study, we’ll make you feel at home. But we do need to send, frankly, a clearer message to people that we’re not a soft touch in terms of people coming here who are looking for bogus colleges or false roots or all the rest of it. I think it’s very good to have that clear message, because I think we’ve had too many people who’ve come in and got caught up in the system, sometimes using the asylum system, which isn’t appropriate for them. So very clear system, very clear demarcation, but, as you say, swifter decision-making absolutely at the heart of it. But I just repeat what I said about no detention for children: that was difficult to achieve, but I’m proud of the fact we’ve made progress.

Can I thank you all very much again for coming. Can I thank the university campus for having us here in this magnificent building on this cold day, but nonetheless stunning to see Ipswich looking so good. Thank you very much indeed. Thank you.

Updates to this page

Published 25 March 2013