The Government’s immigration policy has failed. Yes, Theresa May closed down a mass of bogus colleges when she was Home Secretary. Yes, she tightened up the rules for non-EU migration. And, yes, she reduced the number of appeal routes. But the centrepiece of the policy – the reduction of net immigration to below 100,000 a year – has never been realised. In 2010, this was a “goal”. In 2015, an “ambition”. In 2017, an “objective”. But net EU migration alone is almost 100,000 (though at 90,000 or so it is at its lowest total since 2012), and non-EU immigration stands at 205,000 (the highest number since 2011). The Prime Minister’s ambition remains as elusive as ever.
But always look on the bright side of life. There was always little sense in only being able to control half of your migration – the inflow. A bare net target stipulates nothing about the quality of immigration as opposed to the quantity: work skills, the capacity for integration, speaking English – even the likely use of public services, itself the main justification put for using the net figure. We have always suspected that it was put in place because a gross figure would have frightened the electoral horses. The prospect of Brexit opens up the opportunity to overhaul the policy.
The Government is going slow. This is partly because Theresa May’s instincts are restrictive and Amber Rudd’s more permissive. But the delay is about more than the present Home Secretary being second-guessed by her predecessor – the longest-serving one in modern times. Ministers haven’t settled on what they want. On the one hand, the short-term needs of the economy require an Open Brexit, with migration higher than than might otherwise be the case. On the other, the longer-term view of voters points towards a more closed one. The referendum result showed the strength of voter feeling about lower immigration. Philip Hammond says that no-one voted to become poorer. This may miss the point: rightly or wrongly, many people feel that they have nothing much to lose.
So it is that the promised White Paper on migration has been delayed. And until it has been published, there will be no Immigration Bill. In any event, Ministers wouldn’t want a measure to be considered now. There would be too great a danger, from their point of view, of Tory backbenchers seeking to amend it in order to control and cut EU immigration during any transition period. Downing Street wants as little attention as possible to be drawn to its recent climbdown on the matter. We may get more of a sense of future direction if the Migration Advisory Committee produces an interim report on the impact of Brexit during the next few months.
What might a post-Brexit migration policy look like? The first question might seem to be whether or not EU citizens will still get preferential treatment. However, this is the wrong place to begin. A better one is to ask whether countries with which we strike future trade deals – the top negotiating priority for Party members according to ConservativeHome’s survey – should be treated more favourably than those with which we don’t. This Global Britian approach would make sense. Future partners may well want to bargain off greater access for their citizens against greater access for our goods – and these include the EU. Once the principle of control is established, the practice on numbers is negotiable.
But only up to a point, however. Voter hostility to high levels of migration from the EU or elsewhere is always likely to cramp the numbers. Which leads to a second question. To what degree should economic need drive immigration policy? Our answer is unambiguous. One should not confuse the immediate demands of business – especially bigger business – with the wider needs of the economy. New Labour hooked a slice of firms on the drug of cheap labour from abroad. Dependency on the supply is a seductive alternative to upskilling one’s workforce.
In any event, migration is about more than what kind of economy we want to have; it’s also about what kind of society we aspire to be. There is no conclusive evidence that the flow of taxes into the Treasury from migrants exceeds the flow of spending out of it to them – on roads, rail, infrastructure school and hospital places, and, perhaps above all, on housing. Migration Watch estimates that 45 per cent of those required over the next 25 years, if immigration continues to run at its present levels, will be migrant-driven. Government thus has an essential role in helping to wean firms off cheap immigrant labour and enable them to improve the skills of our own workforce, thus raising wages and improving productivity.
Which leads to a third question – namely, how to do that. An Open Europe report backed up what we’re all often told: that there is a potential consensus on migration policy, based on taking back control; a relatively relaxed view of higher-skill migration; a very constrained view of lower-skill immigrants, with checks on the latter for criminal records and access to benefits dependent on learning English, a view also backed in a Bright Blue migration manifesto. All that suggests a work permits system: it may be that when voters talk of a points-based system, they are hankering after roughly this kind of settlement. Elsewhere, the Conservative Manifesto rules out removing students from the immigration statistics, though this may be forced on the Government by the Commons.
A Work Permits system implies a cap on numbers for lower skilled migration at least, which in turn invites debate about how that category is best defined. How would a cap be set? British Future got ahead of the Migration Advisory Committee by looking, in its emerging National Conversation on Immigration report, not only at what local businesses had to say about immigration, but at what other local people did too: “getting integration right and addressing local pressures on housing and schools emerged as key themes across many locations,” it says. To say that there should be some democratic input into cap numbers is a statement of the obvious.
Meanwhile, government could seek to nudge firms into upskilling their workers through carrots and sticks. The former would be an open hand, when it comes to tax and regulatory help; the latter, a closed door to cheap foreign labour for firms which persistently refuse to invest in their workforces. Obviously, radical change couldn’t simply be visited on business overnight. Once work and students are subtracted, two other main forms of migration remain: family and asylum. EU citizens will lose the right to bring in family members after the end of transition under the Government’s present plans. It ought to be possible to up asylum numbers somewhat – though through taking refugees straight from source, not from other western countries.