Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future, which is co-ordinating the National Conversation on Immigration
The New Year reshuffle brought in a new Immigration Minister, indeed the third in three years. Brandon Lewis’s reward for getting to grips with the role quickly in his six-month stint was a fast-track elevation to chair the Party. Amber Rudd will hope to keep his successor, Caroline Nokes, the Southampton North and Romsey MP, for rather longer. 2018 should be the year when our future choices about immigration return to centre-stage of the post-Brexit debate.
The new ministerial red boxes must already be full to overflowing. An immigration white paper, due last autumn, is imminent. An immigration bill will follow to give the Government powers to make post-Brexit rules, even if it is some way from pinning down what those will be. The Home Office is also preparing to take on the biggest administrative task in its modern history, devising a new fit for purpose system able to secure the status of three million EU nationals in Britain, as well as devising a new registration system for those who arrive under the transition rules.
While there are lots of short-term pressures to deal with the practicalities of leaving, and how the transition phase can make that work, the biggest question is what future system we choose. That debate will enter a crucial phase this autumn, after the Home Secretary receives the Migration Advisory Committee’s major report into the economic impacts of different options and how employers might respond to them. She is then expected to set out the Government’s proposals.
But the immigration debate cannot just be about what employers want. We would not be starting from here, after the majority Leave vote in the EU referendum, if it was. The Government will want to work out how to come up with a plan that meets the needs of the economy and public services while also securing the political and public confidence in immigration that has been missing over the last decade. Weighing up the economic evidence will not get there without engaging the public in the choices that we make too.
Helpfully, the very first immigration report to land in the ministerial in-tray asks exactly that. The Home Affairs Committee’s report on the principles for building consensus on immigration makes its conclusions and recommendations based on the largest-ever exercise in public consultation, the National Conversation on Immigration, which is visiting 60 towns and cities across every nation and region of the UK.
Political polarisation often appears to be the theme of the age – and immigration is often thought of as the most polarising of issues. But not everybody is a polariser: the National Conversation finds that most people are balancers. Social media debates about immigration might often be dominated by those who are entirely ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ but most people are somewhere in between. There is scepticism about the scale of immigration, combined with a recognition that it makes a contribution to the economy and the NHS staffing, while also bringing pressures on public services and housing where these haven’t kept pace with the changes. Most people think Britain should protect refugees fleeing war – but aren’t sure how well the system works, or that we are doing enough to help integrate those who are granted refugee protection in the UK.
The public clearly see different flows of immigration differently. There is widespread support for treating international students as a separate issue, but the bigger challenge is how to get a simple and clear system of targets that do differentiate between skilled immigration, where there is broad public permission, and the more contested flows of lower- and semi-skilled migration. The Home Affairs Committee recommends that controls focus on lower- and semi-skilled migration, and that domestic skills planning and immigration policy are more closely linked. It leaves the biggest question – what this framework would mean for EU migration after free movement – to a later report.
There is the potential for consensus on immigration. Perhaps the biggest barrier is the lack of public confidence and trust in governments’ ability to manage immigration. Part of that is about showing that the Government is competent – by having clear rules and applying them fairly and competently. It is also crucial to increase the public’s own voice. Participants in the National Conversation local citizens’ panels felt that the debate was welcome but long overdue. So the Home Affairs Committee recommends institutionalising that process of public engagement, linked to a major political focal point – an annual immigration report to Parliament. This could become as visible a moment in the political calendar as the Chancellor’s budget, providing a much more visible link between public voice and democratic accountability to the House of Commons.
The referendum should not be the end of public voice in the choices ahead – but the start of a process where the public also grapples with the questions and trade-offs that the Home Secretary and her new Immigration Minister now faces.