“I don’t want you to be misled by David Cameron. I’m not advocating an amnesty.”
Nick Clegg, Leaders’ debate, 29 April 2010
“Nick has talked, not tonight, but has talked about 600,000 people having this amnesty, being able to stay. And they would be able to bring over a relative each, so that’s 1.2m potentially.”
David Cameron, Leaders’ debate, 29 April 2010
Both Cameron and Gordon Brown were last night keen to highlight supposed Lib Dem plans for an amnesty for illegal immigrants. The Tory leader even suggested the emotive policy would mean up to 1.2m people getting UK citizenship. But does Clegg want an amnesty, and will it lead to more than a million people turning British?
The source of the claims that Clegg wants to give 600,000 illegal immigrants an amnesty dates back to some comments by the then Lib Dem home affairs spokesman in 2007, when Clegg said: “Perhaps most controversially in our proposals, also establishing a selective amnesty, a route to earned legalisation, for the up to 600,000 people who have been living in our country invisibly, illegally…”
A pretty clear intention in 2007 then, but the language used in the Lib Dems manifesto three years later is different.
The word amnesty is carefully avoided. It states that the party will: “Let law-abiding families earn citizenship. We will allow people who have been in Britain without the correct papers for ten years, but speak English, have a clean record and want to live here long-term to earn their citizenship. This route to citizenship will not apply to people arriving after 2010.”
Further Lib Dem policy documents show that such people would first have to apply for a two-year work permit, and then after these two probationary years of working and paying tax, be able to apply for citizenship. But they would also have to pay a fine or face community service for the years they’d spent here illegally.
So if the word amnesty conjures up images of illegal immigrants merely having to queue up and be given a British passport, it would be somewhat unrealistic, as the Lib Dems have spelled out some strict criteria for would-be applicants.
However, the policy remains that under these plans, in contrast to those of Labour and the Tories, an illegal immigrant could become a UK citizen.
But how many could do this?
The Lib Dems told FactCheck that the 600,000 total used by Clegg in 2007 was now out of date, and moreover, that since the abolition of exit checks no-one really knows how many illegal immigrants there are in the UK.
Yet FactCheck recalled Clegg telling his counterparts in the leaders debate last week – on the subject of illegal immigrants – that: “You can’t deport 900,000 people. You don’t know where they live.” So he clearly feels the total is closer to 1m now, rather than 600,000.
Whatever the total, the Lib Dems told FactCheck that only a “small percentage” of illegal immigrants would actually qualify for UK citizenship under their “tough qualifying criteria”. They said that because they do not know how many illegal immigrants are here, they can’t put a figure on what this “small percentage” would be.
They added: “The Labour and Tory approach to illegal immigrants already in the UK amounts to little more than the spurious claim that they will find and deport them…of course, as we find illegal workers we will deport them, but we make no wild claims about huge numbers that we will deport. That would be utterly unrealistic.”
So on the 1.2m total cited by Cameron, the Home Office rules do state that British citizens do have a right to bring partners and children to this country.
Therefore the basic maths that every one of the supposed 600,000 illegal immigrants first mentioned by Clegg in 2007 could bring someone else into the country is technically true, meaning up to 1.2m. But that assumes the Lib Dems are going to give 600,000 people an amnesty, which they say they are not.
The Tories and Labour call it an “amnesty for illegal immigrants”, the Lib Dems call it an “earned route to citizenship” with “tough qualifying criteria” that will lead to only a “small percentage” getting British citizenship. It boils down to how you define an amnesty.
It’s worth noting that the Lib Dem rhetoric on this subject is certainly more conservative (with a small ‘c’) than when Nick Clegg was talking about the on Brighton sea front in 2007.
And how many will get citizenship? The reality is that until an amnesty, or earned route to citizenship, is offered – the Lib Dems don’t know how many people would come forward and meet their strict rules, because they say no-one knows how many illegal immigrants are really here.
While Cameron’s criticism that up to 1.2m immigrants will be turning British seems to be a big exaggerated, even though it is drawn from a figure (600,000) once used by Clegg. The Lib Dems have called Cameron’s claim scare-mongering, as their rules will impose strict limits.