Tribune Article: Immigration
There can be no doubt that immigration played a key part in the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum.
The changes that extended free movement into the United Kingdom with the accession of the A8 – which included countries such as Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland and Czech Republic –attracted people to the UK due to employment opportunities, language skills and economic opportunities. This coupled with the then booming economy meant that there was a demand for labour which some employers exploited, and used as an opportunity to casuallise labour, and in many areas of the country the pace of change and demand for housing led to pressures which were not anticipated at the time of the accession. This caused concern in some communities and was a contributory factor in many working class community.
Often overlooked is the fact that many second and third generation immigrants, including those from Indian, Jamaican and Pakistan, were concerned that freedom of movement and pressures on the levels of migrants was excluding those from outside the EU. This equally led to a strong leave vote from these communities.
The debate on immigration was solely focused on negatives, whipped up by populist forces, such as UKIP, who offered simplistic solutions to complex concerns.
Against that background, in the run-up to the 2015 General Election Labour focused on policies to tackle the exploitation associated with some the immigration from A8 countries.
- Gangmaster legislation extension to new areas;
- Banning recruitment agencies from solely recruiting foreign labour;
- Strengthening Homes of Multiple Occupation legislation;
- Supporting communities with a migration fund (which the Tories scrapped upon entering office);
- English language courses;
- Strengthening community cohesion;
- Making a positive case for overseas students, entrepreneurs and skilled workers; and
- Increase in the number of Border Guards to ensure we have integrity in migration.
Since the referendum has produced a leave result, now’s the time to look at how we re-examine migration. The factors that drove people to vote leave are still present.
Any future Labour policy needs to recognise the positive contribution that people coming to this country can make. Today’s overseas students are tomorrow’s leaders in business and politics. Why wouldn’t we recognise, and welcome, people who want to come to this country to invest, create jobs and contribute to our NHS? But in a world where we have left the European Union new rules need to be established to meet the concerns of those who are here now and to make sure we remain competitive and humane in the future.
Labour immigration policy must therefore be firmly rooted in several key areas.
It should always have at its heart economic reality: the skills we need and the areas of the country that can support an increase in population. And we have to maintain an integrity in our migration system. Which means the rules we set should be enforced and our borders kept strong.
Without reciprocity immigration policies garner little public support. Policy should be designed so that the interests of UK nationals overseas are preserved. But above all immigration policy must be compassionate. The policy should not be pernicious and should respect people’s right to fall in love, form partnerships or maintain family ties wherever they are in the world.
These principles must underpin Labour policy.
However, there are a number of options that could be sought to renew confidence for the immigration system.
The Close Partnership model:
The first is one that gives special immigration status to EU nationals. This would establish a special agreement between the UK and remaining EU nations which aims to maintain our close historical and cultural ties. We may wish to try and secure preferential treatment on the following principles:
- Freedom of movement, if proof of employment is provided.
- Freedom of movement for students and scientists.
- Right to family – enabling partners of UK nationals to live and work in the UK
- Freedom of movement on internal business transfers.
- Reciprocal arrangements for UK nationals living in EU countries and rights for EU nationals who are residing in the UK before final departure date from the EU.
These could ensure that a reciprocal arrangement is put in place allowing people to work and study in the remaining EU nations. However, they would not be able to ease the newly imposed burden on those travelling to EU nations for leisure or retirement.
This variant of reform would be best for maintaining strong links with the remaining EU nations as it would be going some way to recognising the importance of the fundamental freedom enshrined within EU treaties: freedom of movement. However, there are obvious questions as to whether such an approach could gain the wide support of the electorate.
Align EU with the rest of the world:
The next option could be one likely to reduce the number of EU migrants. It would transfer over a number of policies in place for non-EU migrants to EU migrants, however, it may be important to introduce concessions to EU migrants to reinforce the links we have with our nearest neighbours.
We could achieve a slowdown in migration by a two-pronged approach.
First, extend the Tier 2 skilled workers visa to skilled workers from Europe. This would still mean that jobs in the UK need to be offered to British citizens first before being offered to someone from abroad (the so called Resident Labour Market Test).
We could then extend the thresholds we apply to others such as income minimums. But not on the current terms as these are inflexible and uncompassionate. We should allow a generous Intra-Company Transfer scheme (uncapped), provided workers were coming to do a managerial – not a routine – job. Tier 2 should remain uncapped.
Other aspects that could be included are: a generous short-term visit visa (around 12 months), allow workers to transfer their visa to a new UK employer, preferable treatment to students and scientists, and EU citizens having a fast-track access to British citizenship within, say, three years instead of the standard five.
This would potentially reduce levels of immigration and still support a thriving economy.
No deal option:
The final option the UK could opt for is one where we scrap, not only the current arrangements with the EU on immigration but the current system we use for the rest of the world.
This would require an upheaval of a system that is proven to work – non-EU migration policy – and cause potential confusion for businesses trying to gain access to labour.
Not only would this large upheaval result in uncertainty, it would undermine any chance of a reciprocal agreement being reached between the UK and the remaining 27 EU nations. This could be to the detriment of the UK economically and diplomatically.
Different systems that operate around the world revolve around Green Cards and points-based criteria. The UK already has a hybridised version of the two for non-EU migrants.
We need more light and less heat when it comes to discussing immigration. The EU referendum has shown that people’s concerns on immigration are quick to change with the issue dropping down their list of concerns when asked.
We need to secure a fair deal for those that come to this country, but also one for those who live here now. Labour policy needs to carry the faith of the UK public and should demonstrate that decision makers can react to their concerns with truth.
We cannot forget the pledges we have made to our constituents in previous elections. We must protect workers’ rights, distribute the benefits of immigration through an integration fund, maintain strong borders and have a sensible outlook on the migrant student population.
Labour is the party that can pave a way forward on immigration that is based in economic truth, reciprocal and most importantly compassion.
If those are the tests, then the Close Partnership Model has to be the way forward.
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