As the triggering of Article 50 approaches, we’re starting to glean the first hints of May’s plan for a post-Brexit immigration policy.
The first thing to note is that, of course, such a policy wouldn’t necessarily be permanent. In our political arena we’ve become used to the idea that unpopular migration rules can’t be changed – in large part as a result of 40 years of EU membership. So those who aren’t happy with how the Government sets things up might be tempted to decry it as a permanent disaster/outrage/horror. It might take a bit of getting used to, but the whole point of Brexit is that we can now change any and all policies through the ballot box – so if you don’t like how May arranges things, you’ll still have the right to campaign to change it if you wish. That in itself is an improvement on the previous system, which involved any concerns being answered with the simple words “lump it”.
From what’s been revealed in the last couple of days, it seems that the Government is moving towards a work permit scheme – a sensible approach, widely used, which allows for as much or as little fine tuning by sector and so on as we might wish. So far, what’s been discussed publicly is a system of five-year permits, though there are various reasons to think that might not be sufficiently flexible. If, say, farms need seasonal workers then a five-year work permit wouldn’t be appropriate.
To go with that permit system is a proposal to ban migrants from claiming benefits in that five-year period. This would be both sensible and popular – the payment of welfare to migrants is an obvious and instant reduction in the economic benefits of migration, and an irritant for many voters. It would also contrast with Cameron’s renegotiation, which offered the temporary application of tapered access at the discretion of the EU Commission, rather than the British Government.
What’s a little more worrying is the idea that “the government would seek to take political heat out of immigration by getting an independent body to advise on how many visas should be issued”. This is always tempting for politicians – deferring important decisions to ‘independent’ experts in the hope that by doing so they can pre-emptively dodge any blame from voters. But it’s a bad idea.
For a start, it tends not to work – the establishment of the OBR didn’t avoid George Osborne getting grief about his Budgets, and the existence of IPSA hasn’t stopped MPs being criticised for their pay rates. Neither body has solved the practical or political problems it was set up to address.
Nor does this outsourcing approach bring meaningful independence. We might like the sound of taking politics out of important decisions, but technocrats are no less political than anyone else. Their analysis will still be based on personal ideology because they are human, and you can be sure that they would be heavily lobbied solely by those parts of industry that want as much immigration as possible. Not only do voters not then get the policy the want, but the fudged responsibility means politicians get the blame for decisions they cannot correct, which is the worst of both worlds.
The best outcome of a system by which an ‘independent’ body comes up with the number of visas that should be issued would be that the Government disagrees and publicly ignores its advice. In that circumstance, there’d be a brief opportunity for grandstanding but really we’d all have been better off with the Government just deciding for itself in the first place.
If Downing Street really wants to bring a panel of experts on board as a defensive mechanism for its immigration policy, it should structure things very differently. The people have voted to take back control of migration policy, so the people’s representatives in Government should decide how many visas they want to issue in total. They could then task their expert body to work out how those visas should be distributed by sector – allowing business to make its case, but by the different sectors competing with one another rather than uniting them to push the total numbers up.