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Arbitrary and unworkable: a Leave campaign view on immigration policy post-Brexit

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Posted on April 13th 2017

Hot on the heels of JCWI’s position paper outlining our six recommendations for a post-Brexit immigration system, Brexit pressure group “Leave Means Leave” this week published a report on the subject written by independent MEP and former UKIP immigration spokesperson Steven Woolfe. Woolfe echoes JCWI’s calls by asking for a “fair, flexible and forward thinking” immigration policy and an “honest and responsible” immigration debate. But do the proposals live up to the promise of the title?

Scratching the surface of the report reveals the fundamental dysfunction in both these Leave campaigners' view of immigration and this Government’s current policy.  Both call loudly for “control” and a steep and unrealistic reduction in numbers, while simultaneously arguing that Britain should be “open” and “fair” to those who come here and purporting to create a system that “benefits business, industry and society”. While it contains a welcome recognition of the value migrants bring to the UK, this is quickly undermined. The report blames immigration for practically every social problem we face – all of which will somehow be solved by driving the numbers of people coming to the UK down to 50,000 a year. Why 50,000? The report does not say. Nor does it provide a workable mechanism to achieve the reduction.

A repeated trope of UKIP and the Leave campaign, the paper begins with a call for “full domestic control over all the UK’s immigration policy, procedures and rules”. This comes in the form of a “bespoke British Working Visa System” (a mix of the old points-based system, the tiered system we already have and a “working visa” system proposed by anti-migration think tank Migration Watch) that would somehow manage to reduce net migration “to around 50,000 per year”.

This is an ambitious task considering the Conservative Government’s failure to reduce net migration to double that figure. Non-European immigration alone (which is currently subject to stringent controls) was estimated to be over 250,000 in the year ending September 2016. This is despite the introduction of draconian family migration policies that keep children from their parents; demolishing independent appeal rights against poor decision-making; and introducing damaging borders into the hearts of our communities in the pursuit of creating a “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants.

Despite this target, under Woolfe’s reduced migration system there would be no cap on “highly skilled workers”, “entrepreneurs” or “investors” who currently enter under Tier 1. Similarly, there would be no cap on international students, logically reflecting the value they bring, both to the economy and through fostering cultural ties between countries. Although not explicitly stated, it also appears that there would be no cap on the numbers of people granted refugee status (reflecting our international human rights commitments) and no cap on family migration for British and settled residents. There are strong moral, ethical and economic arguments for this approach. Nonetheless, in 2016 these categories alone amounted to over 350,000 visa grants to non-EEA citizens.

So how would the numbers fall? Central to Woolfe’s proposals is to repurpose the “Migration Advisory Council” [sic] (presumably a reference to the Migration Advisory Committee). Rather than providing “transparent, independent and evidence-based advice” to the Government on the economics of migration, its “revised” role would be to set caps and reduce numbers.

In this pursuit, all remaining working visas would be squeezed into a shrinking annual allowance of 20,000 for migrants coming to fill skills shortages and 50,000 for "low-skilled" workers working in the service and agricultural industries. This includes all of the doctors, nurses, care workers, science teachers, engineers, scientists, IT professionals, social workers, chefs and others who currently fill recognised gaps in our economy that cannot be filled by the native workforce and all who come here to work and ensure that our industries continue to function and our supermarkets are stocked (sports-persons and ministers of religion appear however to escape un-capped).

Under Woolfe’s system net migration will never reach 50,000, barring policies to persuade large sections of the existing population to leave. This is because migration is multifaceted and complex, as well as existing as a reality of modern life. People from other countries come to fill vital roles in our economy, to study and learn skills, to care for our sick and elderly, to find safety from persecution, and to raise their families after falling in love with a British citizen. These proposals instead clearly demonstrate how people’s lives cannot, and should not, be squeezed into arbitrary targets that have been plucked out of thin air.

Ultimately, the proposals put forward by this Brexit pressure group shows that immigration policy must be led by evidence of why people move and settle – something that has been desperately lacking from the current debate. While Woolfe may feel an expert, having spoken to “businesses – large and small – think tanks, politicians and campaign groups”, his proposals reveal an ignorance of the current system and an idealistic dream of a world where all society’s problems will be rectified by falling levels of immigration.

Our current migration system is unworkable, inefficient and inequitable on many levels and a post-Brexit immigration system requires a commitment to real reform. The way to restore public confidence in the immigration system must be led by two things: a real commitment to fostering public understanding of why immigration is an inevitable and beneficial aspect of modern society; and also creating rules, targets and regulations that are achievable and based on evidence. Woolfe’s 50,000 net migration target - like the Government’s target of “less than 100,000” - is based on nothing, achieves little, and will lead to less.

The UK’s imminent exit from the European Union (EU) has seismic implications for immigration policy that should not be downplayed. The mammoth task of bringing EU nationals under domestic immigration control should not be taken lightly, and should be viewed as a vital opportunity to make wider improvements to the existing immigration system. This must be led by a positive view of immigration and by a fact-based understanding about how our economy and society functions.  It cannot be led by deceiving the public as to what is both achievable and desirable.