29 March 2018

Britain’s immigration system isn’t fit for purpose


Britain’s immigration system isn’t fit for purpose. Its political targets are perverse. Its guiding philosophy is reminiscent of Soviet-style central planning. The resulting rules are unworkably complex. Their administration by the Home Office mixes incompetence with malice.

The upshot is heavy-handed controls that still leave voters feeling that things are out of control. That’s bad economics and bad politics. Even international students – fee-paying, politically uncontroversial, future ambassadors for Global Britain – are now turfed out once they’ve obtained a UK degree. Madness.

It could soon get even worse. The only bit of the system that works well – EU free movement – is set to be scrapped. Such is the perceived imperative to keep out industrious, enterprising young Europeans that the government seems prepared to sacrifice the UK’s unrestricted access to lucrative EU services markets to do so.

The danger that Britain will pull up the drawbridge is real. But if – a huge if – further knee-jerk populism can be resisted, there is also a political opportunity to craft a more sensible immigration system.

While immigration was a key issue in the Brexit referendum, very little consideration has been given to what a post-Brexit immigration system should look like. “Take back control” is a slogan, not a policy. And with a year to go until we leave (albeit followed by a transition period) the government remains silent. It keeps postponing publication of its Immigration Bill, now pencilled in for the end of the year.

Precisely because the government hasn’t set out its stall yet, there is an opportunity to frame the debate and rally support around a sensible blueprint. There is also more political space to do so because three big things have changed since the Brexit vote. Net migration has plunged. The political saliency of immigration has fallen. And future controls on EU migration are now feasible.

The fall in net migration has been so fast that even voters are noticing. In the year to June 2016, just before the Brexit vote, arrivals from abroad outnumbered departures by 336,000. In the year to September 2017, net migration was down to 224,000. The true figure could be as much as 100,000 lower, because the government has admitted that it under-counts departing international students. The absurd target of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands is within reach.

Most of that decline is due to falling migration from the EU. Net arrivals have more than halved, to 90,000. While the Office for National Statistics (ONS) doesn’t usually publish quarterly figures, Chris Giles of the Financial Times got them to reveal that between April and June last year net migration from the EU was only 9,000. The agency said this was not statistically different from zero. Given that trend, it is quite plausible that more EU migrants are now leaving the UK than arriving.

Voters are also much less exercised about immigration than before. In June 2016, 56 per cent of voters thought immigration and asylum were among the three most important issues facing the country, according to YouGov. Now only 31 per cent think so, far behind Brexit (60 per cent) and health (42 per cent). Polling by Ipsos MORI finds that 44 per cent now think immigration has had a positive impact on Britain, and only 30 per cent a negative one – a reversal of their pre-referendum views.

From 2021 – after the planned end to the post-Brexit standstill transition period – the UK will also be able to limit EU migrant entry. But should it?

Symbolically, Britain will be taking back control. But just as it is choosing to exercise that post-Brexit control by continuing to align itself very closely to the EU in many areas of the economy, the government ought to make any controls on EU migrants as light as possible. It could, for instance, require newcomers to register; indeed, it could do so even as an EU member, provided Brits are required to register too. It could also require them to leave after three months if they haven’t found a job and aren’t self-sufficient, something it could also do within the EU.

Keeping controls on EU migrants as light as possible would make political sense. There is no surer way to poison relations with our European neighbours – whose support Theresa May has just sought and obtained to respond to the Russian government’s chemical attack in Salisbury – than to treat their citizens as unwanted burdens or threats. How would you feel if your fellow Brits were treated like that elsewhere in Europe?

A light-touch approach would also make economic sense. Now that EU migrant numbers are down, there is growing appreciation of the contribution they make. They pay more taxes than they take out in benefits and services. The NHS relies on them. They co-founded one in four start-ups in Tech City. They pick, pack and process fruit and vegetables that would otherwise be produced elsewhere and imported.

A new report this week by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), a government advisory body, highlighted how important hard-working, highly motivated and flexible EU workers are to UK-based businesses – and thus to their British colleagues and to everyone in Britain who uses from their services.

The dirty secret of UK immigration policy is that the Kafkaesque system that successive governments have elaborated to regulate non-EU migration only just about works because the flexibility of EU free movement partly compensates for its rigidity.

But now that EU migration has plummeted, businesses are having to looking further afield to fill skilled jobs for which there aren’t suitable local applicants. In doing so they are running up against government quotas for skilled non-EU workers. In her wisdom, Theresa May capped the annual number of so-called Tier 2 visas at 20,700 when she was Home Secretary in 2011. Now the cap has been hit, the Home Office is turning away thousands of engineers, doctors and lawyers, according to The Times.

So while keeping controls on EU migrants as light as possible, the government ought to make the system for non-EU migrants much more flexible. A work-permit system would work much better than the Byzantine mish-mash of points requirements, quotas, salary thresholds and arbitrary administrative decisions that currently exists.

There is more political space for a reasonably liberal immigration policy than many may think. Home Secretary Amber Rudd is instinctively more liberal and more pragmatic than her predecessor. She would have the support of liberal Conservative MPs, as well as of those who are responsive to the needs of businesses in their constituencies.

In Parliament, the Liberal Democrats are small in number, but reliably pro-immigration. The Scottish National Party is very positive about migration too; a proposal to allow regional visas for the likes of Scotland and London could win their support. On the Labour side, shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott remains extremely pro-immigration, although Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have tempered their previous enthusiasm for free movement to appease immigration-sceptic Labour voters in Northern towns.

Crucially, many politicians on both sides of the House favour tighter immigration controls out of expediency rather than conviction. If they feel that the wind is blowing in the other direction – or at least that the storm about migration has abated – they may be more open to a more open approach.

What they need is a blueprint to rally around. That’s why I’m fundraising to write one for OPEN, the think-tank that I founded. Can you help?

Philippe Legrain is a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics’ European Institute and the founder of OPEN, an international think-tank on openness issues.