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Visitor bond schemes are not the answer to the problems of immigration

Home Office plans to pilot a system of bonds to deter visitors from some “high risk” countries from overstaying in the UK appear to have triggered another outbreak of disagreement within the government over immigration policy. This is the most recent manifestation of a fundamental tension at the heart of the coalition’s policy, as ministers desperately seek to reduce immigration, while also convincing the world that the UK is open for business.

The Home Office is, quite reasonably, concerned about people overstaying short-term visas. Although data is all but impossible to come by (because the UK has no system of exit controls), this is, in all likelihood, the most common way in which people become irregular (illegal) migrants in the UK. Everyone should agree that this needs to be tackled.

However, there are two key problems with bonds. First, anyone coming to the UK with the intention of overstaying illegally will probably just accept the loss of a bond as part of the sunk costs of doing so (it is likely to be cheaper than arranging illegal entry to the country, for example). There is probably no price you could set that would both put off those who intend to abuse the system and not put off genuine visitors.

Second, administering a system of bonds without a system of exit controls would be complicated. The long-awaited e-Borders system, which will monitor people leaving the country, is still mired in ongoing technical and legal delays. It is not expected to be in place until 2015 at the earliest, and it remains uncertain how comprehensive the system will be even then. It is therefore unclear when and how bonds would be repaid, and how the government would confirm that people have actually left the country within the terms of their visa.

Even if bonds can be made to work in practice, they are probably more useful for raising some extra revenue for immigration enforcement (when people do overstay and sacrifice their bonds) and providing more reliable information about overstaying (which might help enforcement, but also brings real political risks), than in actually reducing irregular migration.

There is also a general concern from business and universities that announcements like this add to the impression that the UK is not welcoming talent and enterprise. Senior Indian politicians and industry leaders have described the proposed bond scheme as “unfair and discriminatory”, undermining attempts made earlier in the year byDavid Cameron to build trade links with India. The Home Office has indicated that, should the scheme prove successful, it will be rolled out to student visas in due course. Students coming to the UK already pay high fees and face high costs of living and are required to demonstrate that they have substantial funds available to meet these costs. Adding a bond on top of this would almost certainly lead to the UK losing out in what is a highly competitive international market.

The politics of this is also difficult, for the Conservatives in particular. Ministers have not provided any evidence to justify their decision to target the pilot scheme on only a few countries, but the fact that those countries are all in South Asia and Africa will have created a suspicion for some that ministers are rather more concerned about migration from some countries than from others (there are plenty of visa overstayers from countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the US). As the UK changes, the Conservative party needs to attract more ethnic minority voters if it is to secure majorities in the future. Poorly thought-out immigration proposals like this cannot help in that endeavour.

Ministers are right to look for new ways to tackle irregular migration, but bonds do not provide a short cut to dealing with deep-rooted institutional problems, and illustrate very clearly that there are real trade-offs in immigration policy. In trying to keep out undesirables, you almost inevitably keep out those (including valuable export customers) who you want to attract too. Governments can make choices about where they strike this balance, but they should not suggest to the public that trade-offs do not have to be made.