The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration
. What we don’t want is a situation where people think that they can come here and overstay
because they’re able to access everything they need
. Within the EU, in a wider context, people are increasingly recognising the need to prevent the abuse of free movement
Theresa May interview: 'We’re going to give illegal migrants a really hostile reception’
Poker players say everyone has a tell, a little tic that gives away their feelings about the hand they are playing. For Theresa May, it’s the eyes. Ask her a question she finds tricky — or just impertinent — and her eyes narrow briefly: catlike and wary.
Mrs May admits that some of the queues recently experienced at Heathrow and elsewhere have been "unacceptable", but insists things are getting better Photo: Geoff Pugh
By James Kirkup, and Robert Winnett
10:00PM BST 25 May 2012
The Home Secretary chooses her words with feline delicacy too, painfully aware that in her position a few stray words or a rash promise could be suicidal.
The safety-first approach has served her well so far. Despite a few scrapes, after two years in the job her position is secure — or at least, as secure as anyone can be in Whitehall’s most dangerous department. Most of the incidents that have put her on the front pages have sprung from Britain’s endlessly newsworthy immigration system.
Official figures this week showed that net immigration was still running at about 250,000 a year, well above the “tens of thousands” that the Conservatives — but not the Lib Dems — promised the Coalition would deliver.
Why aren’t the numbers coming down as her party promised? Blaming Labour for the scale of the problem, she admits that all the Coalition has managed to do is “stabilise” the migration numbers.
But soon, she insists, those figures will fall, as restrictions on student and working visas are reflected in the statistics. “We are seeing the number of visas issued going down, but there is a lag between those and feeding through into the net migration figures.”
So will she promise that the “tens of thousands” promise will be met by the next election? Here, the eyes narrow noticeably. “Well, that’s what we’re aiming for.”
Today though, her focus is on those who are in Britain illegally, and her language becomes uncharacteristically vivid. “The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration,” she declares.
Work is under way to deny illegal immigrants access to work, housing and services, even bank accounts. “What we don’t want is a situation where people think that they can come here and overstay because they’re able to access everything they need,” she says.
HM Revenue and Customs is coming down hard on companies that employ illegal immigrants, the Department of Work and Pensions is taking a “zero tolerance” approach to benefits claims, and local councils are closing impromptu shelters offering “beds in sheds”, she says.
And now the UK Border Authority has joined CIFAS, a not-for-profit financial fraud prevention service, with a view to closing individual bank accounts. “We will talk to the CIFAS members, financial institutions, about the possibility of closing accounts of people who have no right to be here,” she says. “If you’re going to create a hostile environment for illegal migrants … access to financial services is part of that.”
Some critics blame Britain’s immigration troubles on the EU and the freedom of movement it grants to those within its borders. Mrs May says her recent conversations with EU counterparts suggest that the European mood is changing.
“Discussions within the EU are much more looking at the immigration issue, the migration issue, as something that needs to be considered and addressed,” she says. “Within the EU, in a wider context, people are increasingly recognising the need to prevent the abuse of free movement.”
And what if a eurozone collapse sent thousands of economic migrants heading north from Greece or Spain? Could she legally restrict their right to come to Britain?
This is another eyes-narrow moment. “As in every part of government, it is right that we do some contingency planning on this,” she says. “That is work that is ongoing.” But could you restrict entry in an economic emergency? “We will be doing contingency planning.”
The other side of the immigration coin is the trouble some Britons have getting back into their own country.
Mrs May admits that some of the queues recently experienced at Heathrow and elsewhere have been “unacceptable”, but insists things are getting better.
More staff and better co-ordination of shift patterns with flight arrivals should end the maddening ordeal of standing in line while staring at empty immigration desks.
Those improvements should “make sure that we have all the desks manned at peak times, so that we can provide people with the service they want.”
So can she guarantee no infuriatingly empty desks during the summer holiday season? Here, she comes close to making a promise.
“What we are doing is working with the airports and the operators … so we can manage the people on the desks to ensure that they are all manned when those peaks come.”