Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.
The latest round of net migration statistics – with numbers stubbornly remaining more than three times over the headline ‘tens of thousands’ target – will have reminded many voters why they have lost confidence in the system.
While the EU referendum wasn’t only about immigration, it certainly played an important role. The majority vote to leave did represent a vote of no confidence in how governments have managed immigration, and frustration that concerns about the impacts of rising immigration on public services and housing seemed to be dismissed.
Nobody can yet be sure how much impact Brexit will make on immigration. It will depend on the Brexit negotiations, and how the Prime Minister handles the balancing act between economic demands for maximum market access and the referendum message that free movement cannot continue unrestricted. There will be major administrative challenges in the transition away from EU membership – and the Home Office will need proper resources to implement them.
Once the free movement rules change, more people will be subject to immigration control. There is almost universal political support for securing the status of 3.5 million EU nationals resident in the UK, but there is going to be a lot of additional paperwork to process. And the number of visitors to the UK is likely to continue its upward trend: there were 36.1 million visits to the UK last year, five per cent more than the previous year. These issues will put greater pressure on Home Office resources that are already stretched.
Immigration consistently ranks alongside the economy and NHS among the public’s chief concerns for the country. That is not reflected in public spending. There has been a year-on-year cut in revenue spending on visas, border control and enforcement since 2011.
In the UK, we spent £28 per head on border control in the 2015-2016 financial year. Moreover, it is planned that borders and immigration will be a fully self-funded system by 2019-2020 – by using income from fines, visas and other fees.
These plans seem increasingly unrealistic, given the extra resources that will be needed to deal with new administrative pressures. The government should postpone those plans, and instead task the Migration Advisory Committee with calculating how much revenue and capital funding is needed for the Home Office to fulfil its immigration control function efficiently and fairly.
The need for extra resources will not go down a storm with Philip Hammond at the Treasury. But if we want a system that is effective, fair and trusted by the public, we should resource it accordingly. And it will be important to meet the additional administrative challenges without impeding the message that post-Brexit Britain remains very much open for business.
So, on this issue, the Home Office may have the whip hand. The 2015 election result showed once again that the Conservatives are most trusted to run the economy. Yet the referendum result just a year later showed how six years of the net migration target has damaged its credibility on running the immigration system. Theresa May will surely want to restore its reputation on her watch.
The Brexit settlement will provide a ‘Reset moment’ on immigration: a chance to implement a system that responds to legitimate public concerns about the pressures of immigration and is trusted to manage immigration fairly and competently. That won’t come for free but for a Prime Minister looking to show that she has heard the message of the referendum, it could offer great value.