Steve Double is MP for St Austell and Newquay.
Since the nation voted for Brexit in June 2016, our resolve to respect the results of the referendum by leaving the EU and the European Single Market has been unwavering. Talk of a second referendum has dominated the airwaves lately, but there is scarcely any evidence this would deliver a decisive result – the kind that some politicians are seeking in order to rethink Brexit – were we to have another vote tomorrow. If anything has changed, it is the way the British public views migration – its importance and its impact on our economy and communities.
Bringing an end to freedom of movement, one of the four indivisible and fundamental freedoms of the EU, has been a priority for the Prime Minister in her negotiations. Migration ranked highly among the reasons for the people’s vote to leave the EU. “We have no control over migrants coming in”, “open borders has not worked”, “they are putting a strain on local infrastructure and services” – these were the concerns many of my colleagues and I heard time and again on the doorstep and at town hall meetings, and the more-than-unexpected results of the referendum spoke volume about the extent that these concerns were felt across the country.
While it is certainly true that leaving the EU presents us with a once in a lifetime opportunity to build a fairer and more effective migration system that meets our needs and returns control of migration policy from Brussels to London, Number Ten would be misguided if they thought nothing has changed. Public attitudes have changed in profound ways and these changes have taken place on three levels.,
First, the Brexit vote has given rise to a more positive view of migration. Fewer people think that there are too many migrants in the UK, as Britons increasingly recognise the benefits that migrants bring to the country and are assured by the government’s commitment that there will be a reduction in migration levels.
Recent evidence from the National Conversation on Immigration has shown that our citizens are ‘balancers’, on the whole, who see the gains and pressures of migration when weighing up its impact. They appreciate the skills they bring in, the jobs shortages they fill and their contribution towards public finances. They understand that there are realistic trade-offs when it comes to controlling migration and know what is at stake for British businesses. There is also a broad consensus for a fair and humane migration system that places the welfare of families and individuals at its heart: The vast majority of us are ashamed of the treatment of the Windrush generation and none of us want to see administrative failures and incompetence lead to a repeat of the scandal.
While it is true that controlling migration remains to be an issue of concern for Leave voters, it is no longer the case that migration is seen by the public as the most salient issue. Two weeks before the nation went to the polling booths to decide our future with the EU, a YouGov Most Important Issues poll found that 56 per of those surveyed saw “Immigration & Asylum” as the most frequently-cited issue facing the nation – more than 10 points ahead of any other issues including the Economy, NHS and Public Health, Defence and Terrorism. This figure was most recently recorded at 29 per cent.
Third, with employment rates hitting record levels and virtual full employment across many sectors, businesses have raised legitimate concerns that they do not want an oversimplified approach to migration which will leave them worse off with fewer workers. Removing the numerical cap on Tier 2 skilled workers visas would be a good start, but any salary-based threshold must be driven by evidence and not imposed arbitrarily.
Furthermore, the importance of certain lower-wage roles for our economy and society needs to be adequately considered. In my constituency of St Austell and Newquay in mid-Cornwall, for instance, the seasonal nature of our visitor economy as well as fish stocks, fruits and vegetables mean that a flexible and dynamic migration system for temporary low-skilled labourers will be absolutely crucial to ensuring the continued success of the Cornish economy.
It appears quite clear that the approach from Number Ten has been that as long as we stop free movement people will view that as delivering on the referendum. However, regaining sovereignty over our own laws and trade has instead become a more important issue. The notion of ‘control over our own borders’ has moved away from a debate around migration to one focused on the so-called backstop and the integrity of the union.
The Prime Minister has misread the mood of the country by overemphasising and prioritising the stopping of free movement of people. The draft Withdrawal Agreement has not captured the shift in public mood with regards to migration, and fails to keep our commitment to regain sovereignty to the UK – a precondition to any true Brexit that delivers on the result of the referendum.
In a rare admission of fault, the Prime Minister told MPs recently that she was wrong to have referred to EU citizens as “queue jumpers”. Though she might have been able to get away with that kind of language in 2016, the British people have since moved on and have come to better appreciate what is at stake in the migration debate and migration’s impact on our country.
Despite the many irreconcilable differences that exist between Remainers and Leavers over Brexit, there is a now a window of opportunity for a better, more sensible and cross-party debate around migration than the one we had in the referendum campaign. The public wants us as politicians to lead the way in improving the quality and quantity of discussions on migration.
It is absolutely right that as we leave the EU we do take back control of our borders. But having control over our own migration policy is not the same as stopping all migration. We should be able to manage migration in a way that suits our own economic and social needs and concerns whilst having a compassionate approach to those fleeing war, persecution and oppression. We should also be able to better ensure we have the infrastructure and services to meet any increase in population and protect those communities who have in the past felt overwhelmed by migration.
With the Immigration White Paper now published, the time is now to drop this hostile rhetoric against those who come legally to our country to contribute in our workplaces and communities, and begin a more mature and measured conversation around how we can put together a post-Brexit migration system that works for everyone.