Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.
The central fact of Britain’s referendum decision remains unchanged – Britain will leave the European Union in March 2019 and will need to decide on a new approach to immigration. Yet June’s surprise election result has thrown the details somewhat up in the air, and left Theresa May without the personal mandate she wanted with which to steer through her own vision for Brexit.
If the election showed the nation still split down party lines, a new report from British Future, Time to get it right: Finding consensus on Britain’s future immigration policy, finds a striking amount of common ground, across political and referendum divides, on how we manage immigration after Britain leaves the EU.
There is a growing consensus, within government as well as outside it, for a transition period after the UK formally leaves the EU in 2019. Business will need time to adapt to whatever new trade and immigration regimes Britain has with Europe. Just as Brexit means Brexit, however, transition must mean transition. A transition that looks like an attempt to cling on to EU membership indefinitely would not pass democratic scrutiny.
A clear, time-limited transition period of around three years, with a set end-date, would help provide certainty. But it will only be of real benefit if business knows, early on, what system it is transitioning to. Companies cannot plan towards a question mark or an open-ended series of possibilities. So the UK should agree a transition deal with the EU as soon as possible and then move the debate beyond transition to decide what immigration system will be in place after it ends.
That new system will need to secure the confidence and consent of the public, too.
New ICM research for British Future finds that there is ample common ground on which voters can agree – and overturns some of the lazy caricatures of the referendum. Eight in ten Leave voters, for instance, would be happy if high-skilled migration from the EU stayed the same or even increased after Brexit. Half of those who voted Remain would like to reduce low-skilled immigration from the EU.
Employers will also welcome the public’s recognition of the need for some low-skilled immigration in certain sectors to do the jobs that will still need doing. Two-thirds of people would keep the number of people coming to the UK to do seasonal work, on farms and in hotels, for instance, to remain at current levels or increase. Three-quarters want to maintain the levels of overseas care-workers.
Around two-thirds of voters would support a system that delivers the control over low-skilled EU migration demanded in the referendum, through an annual quota, while remaining open to the skilled EU migrants that our economy needs. That includes 71 per cent of Leave voters and 60 per cent who voted Remain, as well as 75 per cent of Conservatives and 57 per cent of Labour voters. Just 14 per cent of the public, in fact, actively disagree with this approach to immigration.
Public concerns about the impacts of immigration, for example on public services and housing, are most keenly felt locally in places where the pace of change is fastest. That could be addressed through a better-resourced Controlling Immigration Fund and by paying greater attention to integration, at both local and national level.
Crucially, the Government should do more to listen to those concerns and to engage the public in decision-making on immigration. The National Conversation on Immigration, coordinated by British Future and Hope not Hate, offers a model of how to do this, hosting 120 meetings in 60 locations in every nation and region of the UK, and reporting its findings to the Home Affairs Committee Immigration Inquiry. An annual ‘Migration Day’ report to Parliament by the Home Secretary could also serve as a focal point for greater engagement, transparency and accountability.
The Brexit decision represents an opportunity to engage the public, find consensus and start rebuilding public trust in an immigration system that works for our economy, preserves our values and secures broad support among business, politics and the public. That process should start straight away, because the time to get things right on immigration is now. Brexit does represent a ‘reset moment’ for immigration – a chance to get it right and rebuild public trust in the system.