The Government has squandered a chance to show leadership on migration

Rosie Carter - 20 12 18

With 100 days to go until Brexit, yesterday’s much-delayed proposal for immigration after Brexit indicates the chaos that lies ahead, with many members of the Government up all night before arguing the detail of the release. 

The Immigration White Paper is critical, given that immigration was a key driver behind the decision to leave the EU. But with many of the details now announced, it presents yet another case of the Government cutting off the country’s nose to spite our collective face. 

This post-Brexit migration system is not about “taking back control”. It is instead attempting to control the immigration debate. Forcing an unworkable control agenda will in fact increase, not reduce, public concerns about immigration.

We ran the largest ever public consultation on immigration, the National Conversation on Immigration, and found that for most people control, contribution and fairness were the most important factors for a post-Brexit immigration system. 

A map of Britain
The National Conversation on Immigration spoke to nearly 20,000 people and was run jointly by HOPE not hate and British Future

The vast majority of people do not want a hardline immigration crackdown that will damage the economy and harm communities. They want a system that is controlled, yes – but not by arbitrary numbers. They want a system that means migrants can contribute, but not just according to their pay grade. And they want a system that is fair, to both migrants and receiving communities, not one which hampers integration. 

This white paper delivers on none of these public demands. Instead, by overpromising and under-delivering, it will fuel perceptions that immigration is even more out of control and will add to broader resentments which our research shows will charge anti-immigrant feeling even more, adding to community tensions. 

The paper plans erratic reductions on migrant numbers that just can’t be delivered. Excluding the net migration target in the paper is an admittance that numeric targets plucked out of thin air do not work. Javid’s claim that these measures put forward will reduce European Economic Area (EEA) migration by 80% is ridiculous, and hard talk on immigration will not be matched by what people see in their communities. Immigration from outside the EEA has been increasing over recent years, and will increase further under these proposals. 

Sajid Javid sidesteps questions on the net migration target

The proposals set out in this white paper will ultimately harm the economy, which will also fuels anxiety.

Our Fear, Hope and Loss report – which brought together seven years of polling across 43,000 people – shows how economic decline actually pushes up concern about immigration, as standards of living slip and resentment bubbles. These proposals will also lead to significant staff shortages in sectors that are already in desperate need of workers, adding to the social care and NHS crisis, further inflating public resentment about migrants perceived to be adding to strains on public services.  

The proposed minimum income threshold of £30,000, even with some flexibility, is unworkable. At present, 76% of EU nationals working in Britain earn less than £30,000. This is also above the average UK salary and would have an even bigger regional impact: wages in Southend or Huddersfield for example are half that in London.

Regardless, “low pay” is no measure of “low-skilled”, and would eliminate care workers, technicians, and thousands of jobs already facing acute skills shortages. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) estimated that four in five (79%) of EEA employees working full-time in social care would have been ineligible to work in the UK under the skills and salary thresholds proposed by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), on which many of the white paper proposals are based. Removing a cap on high-skilled workers is good, but this is not how our economy works. We cannot rely on scientists and doctors alone: the economy, and society, needs teaching assistants and fruit pickers and security guards as well.

Moreover, this immigration paper’s control agenda will bring about serious integration challenges.

Our research has shown that although concerns about immigration have slowed over recent years, partly as many think it will be better controlled after Brexit, integration has grown as an area of public concern, with attitudes towards Muslims in particular hardening. This paper does not offer a “two-way street” for integration, but creates an unwelcoming environment and disincentive to do so. 

The proposals mean that EEA “low-skilled” migrants will only be able to stay in the UK for a year and will be unable to bring family members with them. We found that 61% of people thought that it was better when migrants commit to stay in Britain that they put down roots and integrate. Some of the biggest concerns we heard in the National Conversation on Immigration were about integration. Short-term visas are an unpopular option: just 16% of people in our ICM poll thought that EU nationals coming to fill low-skilled jobs should only be offered temporary visas lasting a maximum of three years, instead showing preference for longer-term initiatives.

One year is not enough time for most new migrants to put down roots, and will deter those with children. Most people want a fair immigration system that keeps families together – the National Conversation found only 29% in our ICM poll wanted to reduce numbers of non-British immediate family members. Given that public concern about immigration flares up in response to arrivals of single young men, putting limits on family migration seems counterintuitive to winning back public trust on migration. 

The Government had an opportunity here to show leadership on migration and create an immigration system that builds consensus. It is an opportunity they have wasted. The Government is clearly pandering to prejudice and in doing so will only heighten public concern about migration. 

Rosie Carter is senior policy officer at HOPE not hate


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