Moving away from the focus on a net migration target
It’s been a pretty busy month for immigration policy. Just over three weeks ago the Migration Advisory Committee made its recommendations for what the country’s migration regime should be after Brexit. This was followed by the government’s response on the subject last week.
Much more detail is needed before we can be certain what the new system will be. Nevertheless, the government has made it clear that it will not prioritise migrants from the EU, will favour high-skilled workers and won’t include a cap on student visas. The government has also promised to pilot a revival of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS).
Such clarity is welcome, particularly for businesses, many of whom are wholly unprepared. Nevertheless there are some tough questions that still need answering.
Should agriculture be the only sector to access lower-skilled labour? To what extent (if any) will mid-skilled jobs be eligible for Tier-2 work visas? Should the Tier-2 visa cap be abolished? Doctors and Nurses have already been taken out of it, then there’s the fact that the Home Secretary himself doesn’t seem to be a fan. Will the current earnings threshold be retained? On this last point, the MAC argued to retain it but our analysis suggests that in many mid-skilled occupations the majority of EU migrants don’t earn enough.
The government has signalled that it is planning one of biggest shake-up of our migration system. Just how big will it be? We’ll get a better idea once the questions above are answered.
In the past immigration policy has operated independently of wider social and economic ambitions. With Brexit fast-approaching the UK government has an opportunity to rethink immigration policy. Here are three recommendations the government should consider….
Firstly, let’s scrap the government’s ineffective net migration target and ensure the new immigration system helps fulfil the needs of our economy. Our immigration strategy should clearly differentiate between types of immigration. Categories that could have separate strategies might include: entrepreneurs and investors; family migrants and resettled refugees; and international students entering into higher education.
Secondly, if free EU movement ends, government immigration policy should encourage employers to demonstrate responsible employment practices. The IPPR Commission on Economic Justice Immigration Strategy proposes a “Trusted Sponsor Scheme” to encourage employers to invest in domestic skills and not undercut wages. By demonstrating good practice companies could receive benefits like fast-tracking, prioritisation, and access to an expanded Shortage Occupation list. This could result in a high-pay, high-productivity system that benefits migrants and the resident population.
Finally, our immigration strategy should promote equality and integration. Non-EU migrants face high rates of economic inactivity, while Eastern European migrants tend to be overqualified and on lower pay. The Government should assess every new immigration policy by measuring success at supporting migrant integration. New routes for citizenship for migrants should be available.
Overall, a revamp of immigration policy that scraps the net migration target, improves real wages and working conditions, and works towards better integration is an exciting opportunity for Britain.
Most people in the UK take a balanced view of both the challenges and benefits immigration brings. Immigration policy must therefore recognise communities’ concerns about uncontrolled immigration whilst protecting and enhancing the benefits immigration has been proven to deliver.
As Bright Blue has long argued, the Government’s continued target of reducing net immigration to the tens of thousands is counterproductive. Not only does an arbitrary and indiscriminate target fail to recognise the nuances in public attitudes, with skilled workers, NHS workers and students broadly welcomed by voters across the political spectrum, but the consistent failure to meet this target reinforces the view that Britain has no control over its border. Reasonable, achievable targets for different categories of migrants – both in terms of gross numbers and the effectiveness of the visa process – would reflect economic reality whilst more effectively addressing public concern.
But to address ongoing concerns, the Government must prioritise integration. Our research shows that voters are primarily concerned about the cultural, as opposed to the economic, impact of immigration. Ensuring migrants have the English language skills they need to mix and communicate with native populations is integral both to assuaging these concerns and improving migrants’ life chances. To promote social cohesion, income contingent loans should be made available to migrants to cover any costs of ESOL courses and claimants of all forms of benefit should be required to demonstrate their commitment to achieving English language proficiency.
Enabling migrants to contribute fully to the lives of their communities would ensure that those most acutely affected by immigration share in its benefits.
… honestly engaging with the public.
Since the EU referendum there has been a frenzy of activity; a buzz of ideas, a clash of views, across all aspects of immigration policy. Economists, academics, researchers, from across the spectrum. But open dialogue between politicians and the public? Nada.
UK public attitudes are not fixed or monolithic. They are more fluid and diverse. A challenge for politicians. But also an opportunity to engage. To listen. But also to inform, challenge, lead.
Engaging with the public should make the Government think again about its net migration target, whose appeal seems increasingly narrow. If even older Conservative voters seem to regard the target as an unsatisfactorily blunt instrument, surely its time is up.
But the net migration target arguably flags a more dangerous disconnect than the ‘what’ of immigration control. And that is the ‘how’. The Windrush episode gave just a tiny snapshot of this disconnect.
Between an espoused level of control, and how that realistically can be achieved in a country that is still ‘open’ to visitors, tourists and students, and does not want to use a registration system or ID cards. This is not straightforward.
And a sense of denial that tough control can somehow be achieved without tough actions. With sometimes very unpleasant outcomes; lives upended, or even lives ended.
Regardless of the outcome of the post-Brexit settlement, immigration pressures will likely increase, not decrease, on the UK over the medium-term. The public will need to be better prepared for what that may mean.