19 December 2018

Britain needs to stop fighting yesterday’s immigration battles


There nearly wasn’t an immigration White Paper today. It is rare for policy arguments in Whitehall, as publication looms, to continue so far into overtime as to leave the Government unable to confirm whether publication would proceed or not well into the eve of publication itself.

One of the hardest-fought battles was not about policy but the language the Government should use to describe its aims on immigration – especially whether its totemic pledge to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ is dead or alive.

The Prime Minister, having failed to meet her pledge during six years in the Home Office, is reluctant to acknowledge that it is unlikely to be met after Brexit either, given that sovereign control over immigration is the main thing that her Brexit deal has been designed to deliver.  But Home Secretary Sajid Javid has made no secret of the fact that he is no fan of the net migration target. If he sees the key to immigration reform is showing how control can restore public confidence, then a promise that is never kept makes that harder, not easier.

The result is a very political compromise. The Home Secretary has kept the “tens of thousands” language out of the White Paper, while noting the Government’s ambition to reduce immigration to ‘sustainable levels’, which Downing Street says that means the same thing. The formal position is that the ‘tens of thousands’ policy remains in place for this Parliament. This renders the argument pointless, as the Government will introduce its immigration reforms in 2021 at the earliest, when this Parliament has almost run its course.

Though it has played a totemic role in immigration politics over the last decade, continuing skirmishes over the net migration target represent a phoney war when it comes to the future of immigration policy.

A new immigration system cannot be introduced overnight. If there is a Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, immigration changes would only come in from 2021, since there will be a transition period until December 2020. EU nationals already in the UK will have another six months to register for the settled status scheme, until the summer of 2021. The pace of negotiations to date mean that nobody would be surprised if the option to extend the transition period to 2022 is taken up.

Even in a no deal scenario, there will be little opportunity to have meaningful controls much earlier, so the target for a new immigration system would probably still be 2021. The Government would proceed with the settled status scheme, with those who were in Britain before Brexit day having until December 2020 to apply.

Nobody needs any new documentation during those two years – and the Government has no register of those who are eligible.  So it will be entirely impossible for employers or landlords to differentiate between pre-Brexit and post-Brexit arrivals. The only sensible policy will be to make anybody with an EU passport or identity card eligible for work. Otherwise, the Government is bound to pitch existing residents, who it has pledged to protect, into a new Windrush-style nightmare of confusion and illegal discrimination.

So the commitment to the net migration target for this Parliament is essentially meaningless. There is a strong consensus in the Cabinet that the target should be gently retired after that. There may be one powerful dissenting voice, the Prime Minister, yet she has now confirmed that she will have departed the political scene before the next General Election comes along, probably well before the immigration changes envisaged in the White Paper are enacted.

The White Paper shows the Government is already taking decisions that ignore the ‘tens of thousands’ target. The message of the White Paper is that policy should be more open to skills, so the quota of 20,700 skilled migrants a year will be scrapped. There will be no limit to the number of EU or non-EU migrants who meet the thresholds. That chimes with broad public support for skilled migration. Yet it will see non-EU migration rise – when it is currently already at 248,000. Indeed, this entirely controlled migration flow has remained above the ‘tens of thousands’ on its own, ever since 2010.

If the Government has moved on, its critics should stop fighting the last war too.  The target may be fading away – but its critics made little headway during its lifetime. It was never difficult to make the case that a target that was always missed was irrational. It was much rarer for others to propose a workable alternative.

The exam question for business on migration is clear: how to make the case for migration that meets the needs of the economy in ways that can secure the public and political consent necessary. There is a consensus on highly-skilled and student migration, but it will be a much greater challenge to unlock contingent public support for migration into low and semi-skilled roles.

To do that, pro-migration voices need to engage substantively with the key issues of public concern, such as handling local impacts, contributing to integration, and ensuring there is investment in developing British workers’ skills.  Business advocates will not be heard doing that if they are still focused on tearing into the irrationality of the target itself. That often seems to convey the message that the only issue that employers had with the high net migration of the last decade was that there wasn’t nearly enough of it.

The great mistake of the net migration target was to choose a number and to then fail to ever find a policy that fitted around it. If Brexit offers a reset moment for immigration policy, it will be important to do things the right way around this time.

A new immigration system should not be designed to hit a particular level of immigration. We should design the framework for making choices about immigration – treating economic migration, family migration and refugee protection differently – within which Parliament and the public can be involved in scrutinising the choices Government makes about its future targets, and what should happen if they are met or missed.

The White Paper declares there is a chance to reset the public conversation about immigration – that may mean resisting the temptation to fight yesterday’s battles again.

Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.