Prime Minister's speech on immigration

A transcript of Prime Minister David Cameron's speech on immigration, given on 10 October 2011.

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

Prime Minister

Thank you very much, Andrew, for that introduction and thank you for the welcome to the Institute for Government. We’re enjoying working with you, particularly on education policy where you did so much under the last government to advance the cause of academy schools and independents within the state sector, something this government has taken up with alacrity and we want to continue working on that.

But today I want to talk about what we are doing to get a grip on immigration in our country. I know the sense out there is that mass migration is inevitable in a globalised society and a modern economy and, as a result, it’s just all too difficult for one country to control its own borders. Added to that, with migration from the EU to worry about as well, people feel powerless to address half the problem anyway. But today I’m going to argue how I believe this government can act in a way that will genuinely tackle the problem and avoid the dangers that opponents of reform have put forward.

First, we need to be clear about what the problem is and I know this is an issue that people feel really passionately about and I know the debate around immigration is not always a healthy one. It often swings between extremes, between those who argue strongly that migration is an unalloyed good, vital for our economic success and those who say it completely undermines our economy because immigrants come and take all our jobs. The debate rages between those who attack caution about immigration as somehow racist and xenophobic and those who plead that our communities just can’t cope with the demands of ever greater numbers flooding in.

I have a very clear view about this issue. I’ve never shied away from talking about immigration. I called for reform and clear limits in opposition and I am determined to deliver on this agenda in government. So let me tell you how I see it.

Yes, some immigration is a good thing. It is right that we should attract the brightest and the best to Britain. We genuinely need foreign investors and entrepreneurs to come here. In the same way that many people take advantage of opportunities to work and study and live overseas, many of our own communities here have been enriched by the contribution of generations of migrants. Our schools and universities have some of the best teachers, researchers and students from all over the world and we should be proud of that. Our hospitals are full of talented doctors and nurses caring for the sick and vulnerable. Our high streets are home to entrepreneurs who are not just adding to the local economy but playing a vital part in local life. And yes, Britain will always be open to those who are seeking asylum from persecution. That says something very important about the kind of country we are and we should be proud of that too.

But excessive immigration brings pressures, real pressures on our communities up and down the country. Pressures on schools, housing and healthcare and social pressures too. When large numbers of people arrive in new neighbourhoods, perhaps not all able to speak the same language as those who live there, perhaps not always wanting to integrate, perhaps seeking simply to take advantage of our NHS, paid for by our taxpayers, there is a discomfort and tension in some of our communities. And crucially, while it is crude and wrong to say that immigrants come to Britain to take all our jobs, there’s no doubt that badly controlled immigration has compounded the failure of our welfare system and effectively allowed governments and employers to carry on with the waste of people stuck on welfare when they should be working. And there is also the concern that relatively uncontrolled immigration can hurt the low paid and the low skilled while the better off reap many of the benefits. So I think it’s absolutely right to address all of these concerns, because if people don’t feel that mainstream political parties understand these issues they will turn instead to those who seek to exploit these issues to create social unrest.

And there’s an even bigger reason for addressing immigration too. It’s about fairness, real fairness – fairness for people already living here, working here, contributing here who worry about finding work, getting a good school for their children and affording a good house. For too long they’ve been overlooked in this debate and it is time to do right by them.

So what does all this mean? Well, put simply, yes, we need immigration, but it needs to be controlled. We need to have control over how many people come here and who, but the reality is we’ve inherited a system where we don’t really have control over either. The figures for people coming to Britain are really quite huge: 575,000 people came here last year intending to stay for a year or more. Now, of course, it’s right that when many people are choosing to live abroad and when some migrants stay for a period but then return home we should, in my view, have a clear eye on net migration (the difference between people leaving and people coming) but this has been rising too. In 2008, net migration was about 163,000; in 2009, 198,000; and in the data published earlier this summer, the 2010 figure is a staggering 239,000.

There are early signs in the most recent figures that the reforms this government has brought in are beginning to reduce the overall figure, but these very high numbers are why I believe we’ve had a worrying collapse in public confidence in our ability to control inward migration. And at the heart of all of this I believe is the complete failure of the points-based system to control migration.

Now, the points-based system sounded great in principle, but the very term ‘points-based system’ has proved to be misleading. The rhetoric implies that each and every potential migrant is carefully and individually assessed with only those scoring the most points able to enter the country, but the reality was very different. Instead of a system of points for individuals there were a range of low minimum thresholds where anyone who met them was automatically entitled to come, almost on a self-selection basis, to work and study and, in many cases, to bring their dependants too.

Take tier one of the points-based system, for example. This was for so-called highly skilled migrants. Now, this was sold as bringing in the best of the best, people with extraordinary skills and qualifications who were going to help drive economic growth. They were so good that they didn’t need to have a specific job offer before they came here; the door, if you like, was permanently open to them. That was the rhetoric, but what was the reality?

The reality was that someone with a modest salary and a Bachelor’s degree in any subject from any college in the world could come over here and do any job they liked and, of course, the system was a magnet for fraudsters. Plenty never found work at all. One study showed that about a third of those sampled only found low-skilled roles working as shop assistants, in takeaways or as security guards. So when this government came to office, we ignored the rhetoric, we looked hard at the reality and we simply closed down the whole of the tier one general route and we did this without any complaint from business.

Take the next tier, tier two: this was for migrants coming here who did actually have job offers. Now, large numbers of this group were actually coming to do low-level work which many people have rightly felt those on welfare in the UK should actually be trained for, but instead these jobs were going to migrants.

Tier three, albeit never opened, was explicitly for those with no skills. Now, the fact that this tier was even created I think tells you everything you need to know about the so-called selectivity of the system we inherited. And tier four allowed those with a place at college to come to the UK even if the college was extremely low-level or, worse, bogus, not really a college at all, and this still applied to students who spoke no English.

This was a system where the migrants got the choice to come rather than us having the choice of migrants. And it was a system which was also totally unfair, which people rightly feel added to the sense that there was a ‘something for nothing’ order to the day. So we simply could not carry on like this.

So today I want to set out the new approach this government is taking to control immigration into this country. An approach that ensures a hard-headed selection of genuinely talented individuals based on our national interest; people who will really contribute to this country and drive the economic growth on which we all depend. But an approach that imposes tough limits, not weak minimum thresholds, real tests of skill and potential, not thousands of people box-ticking their way into the UK. In short, a system that actually controls immigration for the good of this country; one that doesn’t just sound tough, but is tough.

Now, there are four areas to focus on if we’re really going to start controlling how many people come here and who they are Those four areas are: work visas, students, family migrants and illegal immigration. We need to address all of them. What I’m saying today is not the final word and I want to pay tribute to the Home Secretary and to Damian Green for the brilliant and dedicated work they’ve already done, working with others across government, but much more hard work lies ahead.

Today, I want to set out some of the areas where we now need to go further in tackling abuse and ensuring that immigration is controlled. Immigration needs to be controlled and I’m absolutely focused on this.

So let me start with those who come here to work. As a coalition government we agree about the importance of controlling immigration, but our approach has rightly focused on how to do this without damaging business or discouraging inward investment in to the UK. So, in April, we introduced a limit on the number of economic migrants able to come to the UK from outside the European Economic Area. Now, many people predicted that this wouldn’t work and that it would stop British businesses getting the workers they need, but the evidence shows this hasn’t been the case. That limit of 20,700 for the year has been undersubscribed each and every month since it was introduced, with businesses currently using less than half of their monthly quotas. That provides the opportunity to consider with business what further tightening of the system may be possible without undermining growth and we’ll be asking the Migration Advisory Committee to look into this whole area again and to reconsider whether the limit is set at the right level.

But we’ve not just added a blanket limit. We’ve begun to be much more selective not just about how many people come in, but about who comes in. Britain is one of the most open economies and open societies in the world and we want the best and the brightest to come here: the investors and the entrepreneurs who will create the businesses and the jobs of tomorrow and the scientists who will help keep Britain at the heart of the great advances in medicine, biotech, advanced manufacturing and communications. These people deserve the red-carpet treatment and that is what we’ll give them. So we’ve actually increased the opportunities for foreign investors and entrepreneurs to come here, issuing 196 visas to entrepreneurs in the first half of this year, on track to be more than what we did last year. We’ve opened a new pathway for those of exceptional talent, nominated by the likes of the Royal Society and the Arts Council and, in future, we’ll make it easier for angel investors to back foreign entrepreneurs, people who are starting small scale but may end up running the blue-chip businesses of tomorrow.

We’ve also listened very carefully to business over inter-company transfers, ensuring that multinational companies with a presence here can bring in their skilled managers and specialists, because attracting top business investment to Britain is a fundamental part of our strategy for economic growth.

But we also want to do more to encourage employers to take on British workers. On the advice of the Migration Advisory Committee we’ve reduced the number of jobs that can be offered to migrants, including jobs like care workers and chefs, but I want us to go further.

Over the last decade, millions of new jobs have been created in Britain, but one of the problems has been large numbers of people have come to the UK and successfully found work. In fact, some estimates suggest that around two-thirds of the increase in employment since 1997 was accounted for by foreign-born workers. Even now people are managing to come to the UK and find a job, yet throughout all those years we consistently had between four and five million people on out-of-work benefits.

Now, I completely understand this from the employers’ point of view. Confronted by a failing welfare system, shortcomings in parts of our education system and an open-door immigration system they were able to choose between a disillusioned and demotivated person on benefits here in the UK or an Eastern European with the get up and go to come across a continent to find work. Or they could choose between an inexperienced school leaver here or someone five years older coming to Britain with the experience they need. But that situation is simply not good enough and we do have to change things.

Going down the high street, you can’t fail to notice the pride that employers have in British products. I want to see the day when they have the same pride in the British workforce, and where there’s a culture where companies feel positively encouraged to explain how many people they’ve helped off welfare and into work. That is why we’re addressing the shortcomings in the education system so there are plenty of people with the right skills entering the labour market. It’s why we’re getting a proper grip on immigration controls and it’s why we’re reforming the welfare system with proper conditions for those on benefits and a work programme that offers real support to get people off benefits and into work, re-motivating the long-term unemployed, making them believe they can work again. And also, crucially, matching individuals to employers and giving those young people real experience of work or a proper preparation for the places where jobs can be found. Not discriminating against those from other countries, but making sure that the British option with the local knowledge that an employer needs is once again the best option.

Now, Jobcentre Plus and work programme providers are already hard at work helping the unemployed into work. We’re now putting in place the systems we’ll be using to track their success and we’re going to look at new ways to encourage employers to do even more including through a national awards scheme to recognise organisations that excel in getting people into work. So we make sure that this time it is the long-term British unemployed who reap the benefits of growth in the labour market.

Now second, let me turn to students. The concern in this area was that properly controlling migration would somehow damage our prestigious universities, higher education institutions and colleges. A vital part of a sector – further and higher education – that should be a key driver of growth in a country and which in Britain is already a respected world leader. Now through carefully made coalition policy we’ve managed to ensure there’s nothing to stop genuine students applying to study here. We’re working with the sector to encourage the brightest and best students from around the world to come and study and we intend over the next year to step up efforts to attract a greater share of the best globally mobile business school and other postgraduate talent to come to the UK. We need to be absolutely clear in this whole debate: we want these top students to come here. We can’t have world-class education if our institutions are closed to the outside world. Our education exports are worth more than £14 billion a year. International students, postgraduates, researchers – they bring tremendous benefits to this country and they make an enormous contribution to the intellectual vibrancy and diversity of our educational institutions.

But when it comes to bogus colleges and bogus students we have to be equally clear. They have no place in our country. In June last year in New Delhi for example, more than a third of student applications, verified by the visa section, were found to contain forged documents. Private colleges now have to face far more rigorous checks on the quality of their education provision before they can sponsor international students. Since May 2010 the UK Border Agency has revoked the licences of 97 education providers. A further 36 currently have their licences suspended and 340 institutions will be prevented from bringing in new non-EU students after failing to apply to the relevant bodies who will oversee the quality and standards of education providers.

Now this represents just over 30 per cent of the privately funded institutions previously on the UK Border Agency’s register, including so-called colleges that have been undermining the good reputation of the whole sector by bringing in thousands of bogus students. And not only have there been bogus and low-quality students coming to bogus and low-quality colleges, there have been a huge number of people bringing dependants under the pretext of studying. Some people in the past used the student visa route simply so their spouses or families could come and work in the UK, but there are now clear restrictions for all students on working and bringing dependants and we’ll continue to ensure the foreign students coming in will be genuinely high quality students who we really want and who can make a meaningful contribution to our economy.

Now, the third area is around family migration. Now of course in the modern world where people travel and communicate more easily than ever before and where families have connections across the globe, people of course want to move to different countries to be with loved ones. We all understand this human instinct but we need to make sure for their sake as well as ours that those who come through this route are genuinely coming for family reasons, that they can speak English and that they have the resources they need to live here and make a contribution here, not just to scrape by – or worse, to subsist on benefits.

Now last year family migration accounted for almost a fifth of total non-EU migration to the UK with nearly 50,000 visas granted to family members of British citizens and those with permanent residents here in the UK. So this is a vital area that we cannot ignore if we want to control immigration effectively. We’ve been consulting on how to ensure those who come to the UK as family migrants are supported without becoming a burden on the taxpayer. We’ll be bringing forward firm proposals shortly but a sample of more than 500 family migration cases found that over 70 per cent of UK-based sponsors had post-tax earnings of less than £20,000 a year. Now, when the income level of the sponsor is this low there is an obvious risk that the migrants and their family will become a significant burden on the welfare system and on the taxpayer. So we’ve asked the Migration Advisory Committee to look at the case for increasing the minimum level for appropriate maintenance. And we’re going to look at further measures to ensure financial independence, discounting promises of support from family and friends and whether a financial bond would be appropriate in some cases.

We’re also consulting on how to tackle abuse of the system to make sure that family migrants who come here are in a genuine relationship with their partner. Time and again visa officers receive applications from spouses or partners sponsoring another spouse or partner soon after being granted settlement in the UK, suggesting the original marriage or partnership was simply a sham designed to get them permanent residence here. For example there was a Pakistani national who applied for a spouse visa on the basis of his marriage to someone settled in the UK. He got indefinite leave to remain then immediately divorced his UK-based spouse, returned to Pakistan, remarried and then applied for entry clearance for his new spouse. We simply cannot sit back and allow the system to be abused in this way.

So we will make migrants wait longer to show they’re in really genuine relationships before they can get settlement and we’ll also impose stricter and clearer tests on the genuineness of relationships including the ability to speak the same language and know each other’s circumstances. We’ll also end the ridiculous situation where a registrar who knows a marriage is a sham still has to perform the ceremony.

Now, of course the most grotesque example of a relationship that isn’t genuine is a forced marriage, which is of course completely different from an arranged marriage where both partners consent, or a sham marriage where the aim is to circumvent immigration control or make a financial gain. Forced marriage is little more than slavery. To force someone into marriage is completely wrong and I strongly believe this is a problem we should not shy away from addressing because of some cultural concerns. I know there’s a worry that criminalisation could make it less likely that those at risk will come forward, but as a first step I’m announcing today that we will criminalise the breach of forced marriage prevention orders. It is ridiculous that an order made to stop a forced marriage isn’t enforced with the full rigour of the criminal law. I’m also asking the Home Secretary to consult on making forcing someone to marry an offence in its own right, working closely with those who provide support to women forced into marriage to make sure that such a step would not prevent or hinder them from reporting what has happened to them. We’re also going to rewrite the immigration rules to reinforce the public interest in seeing foreign criminals and immigration offenders removed from this country and help prevent Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights being misinterpreted.

Now, of course immigration is not just about people coming to live here for a while. Some will want to settle and then join us as fellow British citizens, but it’s become too easy to come to work and then to stay on. It was virtually an automatic progress between one and the other. So we are going to break the link between work and settlement. Only those who contribute the most economically will be able to stay and we’re consulting the Migration Advisory Committee on how best to do this. Citizenship should be a big deal for them and for us. I’ve been to the citizenship ceremonies, they are moving, they do work, but here too changes are needed. So let me say one more thing about this journey to becoming a British citizen. We’re going to change the British citizenship test.

There’s a whole chapter in the citizenship handbook on British history but incredibly there are no questions on British history on the actual test. Instead, you’ll find questions on the roles and powers of the main institutions of Europe and indeed on the benefits system within the UK, so we’re going to revise the whole test and put British history and culture at the heart of it.

We’ve also got to do much better on the final group I want to talk about today, which is illegal immigration. We’ve got to be much better at finding these people and getting them out of our country. We’ve already made some big changes, telling credit reference agencies about illegal immigrants so they can’t get easy access to credit. We’ve ensured the UK Border Agency and HMRC work more closely together to come down hard on rogue businesses which use illegal labour to evade tax and minimum wage laws, and we’re creating biometric residence permits which are just like a biometric passport to give employers much greater certainty over who they’re employing and their right to be in the country.

A targeted campaign this summer has seen more than 600 operations and over 550 arrests. I want everyone in the country to help with this, including by reporting suspected illegal immigrants to our Border Agency through the Crimestoppers phone line or the Border Agency website. Together I do believe we can reclaim our borders and send illegal immigrants home.

So that is how we’re going to get a grip of immigration in this country: real limits, proper enforcement, real control over how many people come here and who they are. And if we take the steps set out today and deal with all the different avenues of migration – legal and illegal – then levels of immigration can return to where they were in the 1980s and 1990s, a time when immigration was not a front-ranked political issue. And I believe that will mean that net migration to this country will be in the order of tens of thousands each year, not the hundreds of thousands every year that we’ve seen over the last decade.

How do we know when we’re getting immigration right? I would argue it’s when we’re getting the right people we need for our economy and when all those who come here do so for genuine reasons and join with the rest of society in making our country stronger, richer and more secure. That is the kind of immigration I want and that is the kind of immigration this government will deliver. Thank you very much for listening and coming today.


Prime Minister, on the business visas you said that so far they’d been undersubscribed and that might be a good reason to cut the limits, but we’re not exactly going through an economic boom time at the moment. Is this a good moment to set our level for how many migrants we want coming in?

Prime Minister

I think this is why we have the Migration Advisory Committee to advise us about the figures, but what’s interesting is that if you go back to the debates that we had in the country but also within government about setting a tough limit on migration levels for economic purposes from outside the EU. A lot of people argued that this was going to be a real restraint on business; actually it hasn’t turned out to be the case at all. You know, we’ve abolished the tier one completely – that was people with a degree able to come in and work, that’s gone. I haven’t heard any complaints from business about that. In terms of putting a cap – a limit – on people coming in with a specific job offer, we’ve put that in place. Those caps haven’t been breached. Business specifically asked us to be generous over intercompany transfers and we’ve done that. So what I’m trying to say today is, you know, those who say you can’t control immigration without damaging the economy, that this is a forlorn hope, I really believe that’s wrong. We can control immigration. We can do it in a way that doesn’t damage the economy and I think that’s what the figures so far prove. But we will always be pragmatic and sensible, listening to business opinion as we go about this vitally important work.


Why have you changed your mind about this criminalisation on forced marriages because I understand that at one stage that had been rejected? And if I could just ask about Liam Fox – given that the ministerial code says that ministers should avoid even the appearance of a potential conflict of interest, doesn’t that at least amount to a breach of that code and shouldn’t you order a proper inquiry into whether that has been broken?

Prime Minister

First of all on forced marriages, I remain absolutely clear forced marriages are completely wrong. I want to use everything in our power to stop the appalling extent of this practice. So again, we’ve got to be pragmatic. What will work? What will stop more forced marriages in Britain? What will bring the perpetrators to justice? What will make this something that’s just unacceptable in our country? Now those involved in this area – voluntary bodies and others – do warn that if you go straight to criminalisation of the whole edifice you could actually get less people coming forward because they don’t want to shop their parents effectively. So I think the right approach here is to ramp up the pressure and start using the elements of the criminal law. So we’re saying here we’re going to criminalise anyone who breaches a forced marriages order. I don’t rule out further change in the future. I’m pushing this as hard as I can to really get to the best possible answer so we make forced marriages something that simply doesn’t exist in the UK – and it shouldn’t. In a civilised country in the 21st century, it’s a completely unacceptable practice.

On the issue of Liam Fox and the ministerial code, Liam I thought gave a very good explanation yesterday where he said he’d made mistakes, that he’d got some things wrong, he was apologetic about that. He made a statement last night and he’ll be answering questions in the House of Commons. Ursula Brennan’s report will be published this morning and along with that the next steps that we’re going to take to answer all of the questions that exist which I know Liam wants to do and I want him to do too. Let me just say that as Prime Minister, I see Liam as someone who has been a very effective Defence Secretary. He gives that department good leadership; I think what’s happened in Libya is proof of his abilities – his department’s abilities – and so I’m sure that we can answer these questions and come through all of this.

One can’t rush these things. You know, I thought John Major was quite right at the weekend to say that important elements of natural justice you have to show as a Prime Minister and give people the time to answer questions, to unearth the information necessary to do that and one can’t run these things to some sort of pre-ordained media timetable. So that’s not what I’m going to do. I think it’s right that Liam is giving this explanation and he has my full support as he does so.


Prime Minister – quick yes or no question first. Have you ever taken your best man on a business trip?

Prime Minister

I had two best men actually and I don’t think I’ve taken either of them on a business trip.

Follow Up Question

I would respectfully suggest that the reason you haven’t done that is because the potential for a conflict of interest would be so glaring that you wouldn’t even think of it and people would say that your judgement was bizarre and extremely questionable. For all these reasons, surely Liam Fox’s position is untenable?

Prime Minister

Well, I think, with respect, what you’re doing is just sort of jumping ahead of everything. I think Liam gave a good explanation last night. He also apologised for the mistakes that he’s made. He’s answering questions in the House of Commons today. I think it is only fair to allow someone time to answer those questions and to give their explanation and not immediately to leap to judgement. It’s very important – the public want to know that nothing improper has been done; that proper explanations are given; that if there have been mistakes there are apologies. All of those things need to happen but we have to give it a bit of time to make sure we get these things right otherwise you just get trial by the media.


Prime Minister, I must ask you something on immigration as well. On immigration, do you really believe that we can get back to the levels of the 1980s and net migration when the EU’s expanded to 27 countries and surely for as long as this country remains an attractive proposition in terms of work and opportunity, we’re going to see those net migration figures higher than in the 1980s?

And on Dr Fox, we know that you’ve said in your view he’s doing an excellent job as Secretary of State for Defence; we know that you think we shouldn’t leap to conclusions until the facts are known, but are you not disappointed that he’s put himself into this ridiculous position and how concerned are you – and how concerned should we be – that he has shown such extraordinary naivety at the very least?

Prime Minister

On the first question, the point about believing we can get to a situation with net migration as we had at the end of the 1980s and 1990s when it wasn’t a political issue because the pressures and the numbers weren’t so great, if you look in recent years the balance of migration within the EU between Britain and the EU has been relatively in balance. Not every year, but relatively in balance – i.e. the number of British people going to live and work in Spain or elsewhere in Europe has been balanced by the number of people coming in. The large net migration flow into the UK has predominantly been caused by migration from outside of the EU and that is something we are able to control. It’s not easy to do it, you do have to look at all the areas I’ve said – student visas, family reunion, work visas, illegal immigration – you have to look at all of those things but it is possible to do it if you have the political will and the talented ministerial team and the dedication to sort of get on top of the figures.

I was at Heathrow with Damian Green this morning and what you hear from the UK Border Agency staff is so often when you try and control one avenue of migration you find that other avenues start to grow. So this is not a piece of work you just do, announce, pass through Parliament and walk away; it’s something in the modern world you have to be on top of all of the time and Damian and I are going to make sure that is the case.

On the issue of Liam, I think I’ve said all I can say today. I think it’s right to allow him to answer these questions, to give his explanation, to apologise where necessary – and he has already done that – to look at Ursula Brennan’s report, to work out what further questions need to be answered and steps need to be taken. As I say, you can’t rush this process because there’s more information required, more detail needed in order to give the best answer to these questions.

But in the meantime, as someone who has given great service to the government and country, someone who is a good Defence Secretary, a valued member of my team, I think he deserves to have my support while we answer these questions and get this piece of work done. And I’m determined to avoid trying to have artificial deadlines imposed on this and try to make sure that we deal with it in a rational and sensible way rather than reacting to every last story that comes out about this because I’m sure there’s more to be explained and to come forward and explanations to be given. And I think that it should be done in a sensible and ordered way which is what I’m determined to do.

Published 10 October 2011