E.g., 12/03/2023
E.g., 12/03/2023
The Immigration Legacy of Tony Blair

The Immigration Legacy of Tony Blair

Elected prime minister of the United Kingdom in May 1997, Tony Blair of the UK Labour party announced in October 2004 that he did not wish to stand for a fourth term. In effect, he had publicly announced his resignation, albeit with an extraordinarily long notice period. This finally came to an end with his resignation on May 10, 2007, which brought to an end over 10 years' service in Number 10 Downing Street.

Commentators have already leapt to define his time in office, but few have noted one of his legacies that will likely last at least a generation. Namely, Blair leaves behind an immigration system that has been fundamentally reshaped: migration is now "managed" to favor migrants coming for work and study.

Migration has been a consistent feature of the policy and political landscape in the United Kingdom over the last decade. Concerns have ranged from asylum seekers to unprecedented economic migration from Eastern Europe. The monthly MORI poll of "the most important issues facing Britain" has consistently recorded immigration among the public's top concerns. The most recent figures, from April 2007, showed immigration to be the public's second most important issue, behind crime.

Throughout this period, but particularly from 2001, Labour put migration at the center of its energetic legislative program. In the 10-year period under Blair's stewardship, Labour passed four migration-related Parliamentary Acts (laws), and a fifth Parliamentary Bill (a draft law) is currently in the final stages of approval.

This rate of lawmaking surpasses that of every other social policy area. In addition, legislation has been supplemented by a number of major policy proposals and plans (see Table 1). Labour has also developed policy in often controversial directions, such as the decision to allow nationals of new European Union (EU) Member States in Eastern Europe to work in the UK.


Table 1. Timeline of Migration Policy and Legislative Milestones
in the UK Government, 1998 to 2007
Policy/Legislation Type Year Overview
Fairer, Faster and Firmer: A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum White Paper 1998 Instituted new controls but also a "covenant" with asylum seekers; emphasized "joined up" government and the need for administrative overhaul.
Human Rights Act Parliamentary Act 1998 Incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, giving human rights the status of "higher law."
Immigration and Asylum Act Parliamentary Act 1999 Created a "covenant" with asylum seekers but generally restrictive; made provisions for a new welfare support system (the National Asylum Support Service).
Race Relations (Amendment) Act Parliamentary Act 2000 Broadened antidiscrimination legislation to police and immigration service and created "positive duty" for race equality on public authorities.
Antiterrorism, Crime and Security Act Parliamentary Act 2001 Part 4 of the act legislated that suspected terrorists who were immigrants could be interned (potentially on a permanent basis). The Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) reviews decisions, but the act does not permit judicial review of the SIAC.
Secure Borders, Safe Havens: Integration with Diversity in Modern Britain White Paper 2002 Set out comprehensive reform, including the goal of "managed migration."
The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act Parliamentary Act 2002 Increased restrictions on asylum (breaking the previous "covenant") and new enforcement powers, but noted support of economic migration.
Highly Skilled Migrant Program (HSMP) Change to regulations 2002 Created an immigration scheme based on points that aims to attract high-skilled migrants.
Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act Parliamentary Act 2004 Further reduced asylum appeal rights and other restrictive measures.
Controlling our Borders: Making Migration Work for Britain Five-Year Departmental Plan 2005 Published three months before the 2005 election, the plan set out a strong set of measures on gaining control of borders and managing migration through a new points system.
Improving Opportunity, Strengthening Society: The Government’s Strategy to Increase Race Equality and Community Cohesion Policy Strategy 2005 A race-equality strategy designed to cut across government, complemented by a cross-cutting, race-equality target, and overseen by a board of senior public figures.
Integration Matters: The National Integration Strategy for Refugees Policy Strategy 2005 Strategy meant to integrate refugees, including new "integration loans" and the piloting of a one-to-one caseworker model. Built on strategy formulated in 2000.
A Points-Based System: Making Migration Work for Britain Policy Strategy 2006 Proposed a five-tier economic migration system. Tiers equate to categories: (1) high skilled, (2) skilled with job offer, (3) low skilled, (4) students, and (5) miscellaneous.
Immigration, Asylum, and Nationality (IAN) Act Parliamentary Act 2006 Mainly focused on immigration (rather than asylum), it included restrictions on appeal rights, sanctions on employers of unauthorized labor, and a tightening of citizenship rules.
Fair, Effective, Transparent and Trusted: Rebuilding Confidence in Our Immigration System Reform Strategy 2006 Created the arm's-length Border and Immigration Agency, which replaced the Immigration and Nationality Directorate on April 2, 2007.
Enforcing the Rules: A Strategy to Ensure and Enforce Compliance with Our Immigration Laws Policy Strategy 2007 Called for secure border control built on biometric visas and greater checks.
UK Borders Bill Parliamentary Bill 2007 Proposes police powers for immigration officers and a requirement that foreign nationals must have a Biometric Immigration Document (BID).
Source: International Passenger Survey

The backdrop to such passions and legislative pronouncements has been the increasing number of immigrants. According to Home Office statistics, the total number of migrants coming to the UK for more than one year rose from 326,100 in 1997 to 582,100 in 2004 while the net inflow (which accounts for emigration) increased from 46,800 to 222,600 (see Figure 1). The Government Actuary Department predicts net immigration to continue at 145,000 individuals per year. The foreign-born population living in the UK now totals 4.9 million, or 8.3 percent of the population.

Figure 1. Net Migration to the UK, 1971 to 2005
Source: International Passenger Survey

The post-war UK policy model of immigration was established between 1962 and 1976, when three restrictive immigration laws and three antidiscrimination laws were passed. The immigration laws had an official objective of "zero-migration," and the three antidiscrimination laws, at least partly inspired by the U.S. civil rights developments, were instituted to improve what is commonly called "race relations." Thus, the policy was a two-track or dual approach.

The period between 1976 and 1997 — when the Conservative party was mainly in power — was one of continuity in immigration policy in an era of major economic and social policy change. The most salient policy shift was over the target of policy — from all immigrants to asylum seekers. The major objective was to curtail the number of individuals seeking asylum in the UK.

Tony Blair's tenure brought significant changes to the immigration model. Policy developments can be summarized as a strong commitment to the management of migration for macroeconomic gain and the development of a tough security framework that combats unauthorized migration and reduces asylum seeking, coupled with an institutional shake up. Such a précis leaves out much fine-grain detail, but the central question is what — if anything — changed?

Measures against racial discrimination, such as the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, have been reinforced, and laws such as the Human Rights Act 1998 have made equality a fundamental tenet of general policymaking. Under Blair, there has been a discernible move to include race equality as part of all policies. They are no longer simply a quid pro quo or one-half of a political agreement on immigration, the other side being restricted immigration.

However, the emphasis on integration marks a change from previous policy, which was (at least rhetorically) strongly supportive of a policy of multiculturalism. But to suggest, as some have done, that this position has regressed to one of assimilation is an oversimplification. The references to adaptation on the part of host communities — typically characterized by phrases such as "a two-way street" or a "two-way process" — show that policy has moved away from its multicultural pivot, but it is not clear to where it has moved.

Border control remains crucial. The Blair government has steadily increased resources for securing the borders, particularly in the wake of an estimate published in 2005 of the number of illegal immigrants (about 430,000 or 0.7 percent of the population). However, ministers have consistently refused to cap the number of legal immigrants entering the country.

On an institutional level, the Blair government made a number of changes. The most far-reaching change is likely to prove the heavy investment in technology for border security, including increased spending on biometrics, part of a vision of "identity management" that will check each unique person in and out of the country.

Most visibly, in 2007, the government announced plans to break up the Home Office into two separate departments, a Ministry of Justice, and a new, streamlined Home Office focused on crime, immigration, and terrorism. Consistent reforms to the immigration functions also reached their apogee in 2007, when, on April 2, the new Border and Immigration Agency opened for business. Formerly part of the Home Office, it is now an arm's-length agency, providing greater operational freedom. There has also been significantly more cooperation at the EU level, such as joint enforcement efforts to reduce illegal immigration.

In an attempt to reduce the number of people requesting asylum, the Blair government has further eroded the asylum system as a regime of protection. Although the UK has had to harmonize asylum procedures with those of other EU countries, it has also instituted new measures. These include exporting borders (setting up controls and visa regimes in countries of transit or origin), increasing fines on carriers, "dispersing" asylum seekers (forcibly relocating asylum seekers around the country), and reducing social benefits.

However, the major change, plotted in the 2001-2003 period, is the concept of managing migration. This commitment to economic migration has been accepted across the political divide, and, consequently, limitation and restriction on immigration is no longer a prerequisite for UK migration policy.

By embracing economic migration, Blair's government ended the bifurcated model established in the 1962-1976 period and broke one-half (the policy of limitation) of the "immigration settlement" that lasted from 1962 to 2002.

Reattaching Economics to Migration

Such a radical policy break deserves further analysis. Labour inherited an economic migration system composed of a large number of different schemes that had developed in a piecemeal fashion. From 2001, new schemes and measures to facilitate the entry of both low- and high-skilled economic migrants have been introduced. However, the government's decision to resist anti-immigrant pressure and allow labor migrants from the new, Eastern European EU Member States, which joined in May 2004, obviated the need for a low-skilled migrant program.

Furthermore, Labour has reformulated criteria and eased transitions between visas for the purpose of economic migration. For example, foreign students can now apply for a work permit, the Highly Skilled Migrants Program, or specialist schemes, such as the Science and Engineering Graduate Scheme, while studying.

While such a major policy change took place while Blair was prime minister, a causal relationship is unlikely. Instead, the pressures of globalization and networks of interested parties are also factors in these policy decisions.

The one exception is policy regarding foreign students' access to work permits, as Blair has long believed that the UK needs to attract more international students and has gone out of his way to increase the numbers of such students. The net inflow of students rose from 70,600 in 1997 to 117,200 in 2004, suggesting significant success (although the increasing numbers predated Blair).

Blair's Concerns

In addition to his championing of students, Blair has displayed a strong interest in various aspects of immigration, including asylum, security, and integration. He has also not been averse to shuffling personnel and promoting large-scale institutional change.

For years, Blair supported the idea of splitting up the Home Office and creating a separate Ministry of Justice to ensure a better focus on the policy issues, but he first had to wait for a set of crises at the Home Office and a Home secretary (John Reid) who shared his view. (Others felt it would lead to a disjointed approach and undermine the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary).

He has also overseen many prosaic institutional changes — from the restructuring of the legal system for asylum to the creation of the aforementioned Border and Immigration Agency. But examining his interests over a decade in power, three areas stand out.


Blair has shown particular interest in the asylum issue, particularly from around the start of his second term, when he made it a crucial aspect of his domestic political agenda. For example, in a memo he wrote in the summer of 2002, he listed asylum as one of the two key domestic issues.

One of his biographers, Anthony Seldon, attributes Blair's interest in asylum to his "political antennae," which told him that people felt the asylum system was being exploited. Blair himself felt the asylum system was "perverse." Another plausible explanation might be Blair's desire to develop narratives on issues the "Left" in Britain traditionally ignored.

Regardless of the exact reasons, Blair's interest in asylum peaked with his speech to the Labour party conference in September 2004. It was in this speech that he first laid down what was to become a crucial asylum target, known as the "tipping point." In essence, it meant that more failed asylum seekers would be removed each month than had applied. This target, together with changes to the legal system, and a new welfare system based on forced dispersal, has driven much of the increasingly restrictive asylum policy of the UK.


Blair has also been concerned with security. He has personally driven through increased cooperation between UK government departments and between governments, particularly on security and migration measures.

His "10-point" response to the London bombings of July 2005 included several migration-related principles. Specifically, any asylum seeker who has committed, prepared, or instigated terrorism, or has encouraged or induced others to do so, will be denied asylum. These principles became law in 2006, when Parliament passed the Immigration, Asylum, and Nationality Act.


Finally, Blair has associated himself with various integration initiatives. He made the subject an important part of his policy legacy in his last year in office. For example, in 2006, he made a major speech on multiculturalism in which he proposed a new measure that would tie the funding of community organizations to integration, indicating his view that the multiculturalism model must have a strong community dimension.

Assessing a Prime Ministerial Legacy

Blair's decade in power was one that witnessed major reform of immigration and integration policy. The most important break with the past concerned a more proactive, strategic approach to managing migration, putting economic benefit at the heart of reforms.

Blair only tacitly encouraged such change; he himself was much more closely associated with a stronger, more restrictive approach to asylum and security and, eventually, to a more "community approach" to integration.

In making such changes, he has faced only a limited political challenge. The Conservatives (as the opposition party) have supported Labour's legislation and have generally limited their attacks to competence rather than policy direction.

His most ardent critics have expressed themselves in the media and in civil society. Rights advocates have been particularly dismayed at changes to the asylum system while the right-leaning media have made immigration an ever-present feature of the front pages, typically criticizing the volume and ability to "control" the flow.

In spite of the opposition, Blair leaves the UK a new set of immigration policies, which will form the bedrock of policies for at least as long as he was in power.

Will Somerville is a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. His latest book, Immigration under New Labour, is available for order on the Policy Press website.


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Blair, T (2005). Prime Minister's Briefing, August 5. Available online.

Blair, T (2006). Our Nation's Future – multiculturalism and integration. Available online.

Home Affairs Select Committee (2006). Immigration Control, Fifth Report of Session 2005-06, Volumes I-III, HC 755-I-III.

Home Office (2006). "Control of Immigration: Statistics United Kingdom 2006." CM 6904, London: Stationery Office.

Ipsos MORI (2007). "April Political Monitor." Available online.

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Zetter, R (2002). Survey on policy and practice related to refugee integration. Oxford Brookes University. Available online.