The British public are clearly dissatisfied with the way our immigration system currently works. One of the main reasons that motivated people to vote for Brexit in the recent referendum is the hope that Britain could better control immigration by ending the free movement of people from the EU. For years now, immigration has been one of the issues that the public are most concerned about.
But there is hope: now, more than ever, the cynicism can be cracked. There is an exciting opportunity, thanks to Brexit and the appointment of a new Cabinet, for the Government to introduce significant reforms to our immigration system to increase public confidence in it.
What do the majority of the public want? Sensible stuff, unsurprisingly. Bright Blue’s research shows, above all, the public want a system which is well managed, where the UK can choose the people we want to admit and who will contribute to our society. Most want a reduction in the unprecedented levels of immigration the UK currently experiences, not out of fear of foreigners, but because of the pressure on services such as housing and schools which some areas have been unprepared for.
Three major reforms should be introduced to better align this country’s immigration system with public attitudes. The first reform should be to ensure, in negotiations with the EU, that there is eventually an end to current freedom of movement rules. Britain presently has no control over the number and type of people who come from the EU, the antithesis of what the public want.
But getting change is going to be tricky, requiring clever and patient diplomacy. Britain needs a deal that ensures we have access to the single market, considering the desirability for business confidence and investment. Trouble is, the deal for all countries who currently have access to the single market is that they must oblige by freedom of movement rules.
There is an option for those countries in the European Economic Area – such as Norway – to apply a temporary brake on levels of migration in cases of emergency. In the short-term, Britain will have to argue for this. In the longer-term, it will need to campaign strongly for further reforms to the antiquated freedom of movement principle. From outside the EU, this will be hard, but I suspect Britain will find friends. It is becoming apparent that public support in other countries for the EU, and thus the very survival of the EU, depends on the willingness of leaders to alter freedom of movement.
Second, the Government needs to abandon its flagship net migration target. The consistent failure to meet it every year since 2010 has eroded trust in our immigration system. It is almost impossible to achieve because of the lack of control the government has over emigration and, currently, EU migration. It is arbitrary, devised by the Conservative Party without extensive or scientific process. Finally, and most crucially, it is indiscriminate, failing to differentiate between different types of migrants.
Indeed, Bright Blue’s research illustrates that the public do not have the same attitudes to different sorts of migrants. For example, the overwhelmingly majority of the public do not want to see fewer skilled manual workers or professionals, or international students. Conversely, a majority are sceptical of admitting economic migrants who do not have a job lined up in the UK.
So instead of lumping migrants all in the same box, the Government should develop targets for different types of migrants: workers, students, asylum applicants and refugees, and those on family visas. These targets should not just be about gross numbers, but also the effectiveness of the visa process. They should be developed after extensive consultation led by the government-appointed Migration Advisory Committee. And the Government should be held to account on these targets through an annual Migration Day in Parliament.
Finally, the public are aware that immigration brings both benefits and challenges. It is true that immigrants, on average, add more to than they take from the country’s coffers. But it is also obvious that some communities have experienced unsustainable levels, depressing wages of the lowest paid and putting undue pressure on public services. We need policies that show the public that Britain is better using the benefits from immigration to address the challenges.
In their 2015 Election Manifesto the Conservatives promised to introduce a Controlling Migration Fund, which gives extra resources to local communities to ease pressure on services. It needs to implement this quickly. And, most importantly, it needs to provide ample funding. If the Government does not meet the targets it has set on immigration, it should automatically commit to extra funding for it so local areas have additional resources to cope. More radically, all new immigrants – excluding refugees and students – should pay a new class of National Insurance Contributions when working for the first two years of their arrival. This revenue should be paid directly into the Controlling Migration Fund.
The British public want a controlled, contributory-based immigration system. Now is the ideal time to achieve it.