The Conservative party is desperate to use migration as a political “wedge issue” to hold together the coalition of voters who returned them to power in 2019. But their policy is confused and in tatters. The party’s only remaining purpose is to reduce immigration, regardless of social or economic needs and even in defiance of human rights law. There is no evidence that the majority of voters agree, or believe this is possible, and numbers continue to rise.
From David Cameron’s pledge to reduce numbers to “tens of thousands”, they now aspire to reduce net immigration to 300,000, and hope to frighten refugees away with a threat of illegal deportation to Rwanda, at a cost of £169,000 a head. Neither is likely to be achieved. Meanwhile, the backlog of asylum cases continues to rise, with huge costs in human misery and taxpayers’ money.
Not “stop the boats”, but “stop the mess”
However, there are hopeful signs that a Labour government would have the opportunity to produce something humane and workable. This is because public concern about immigration is now at its lowest, and attitudes towards migrants and refugees are at their most positive for years. A recent poll for Migration Observatory asked whether immigration was good or bad for the country, and found an even division between “good”, “bad”, and “don’t know”. But, when respondents were asked to rank immigration as a priority, they ranked it 11th out of 12 topics. The only voters who still prioritise reducing immigration are a small hard core of Conservative loyalists.
All the signs now are that we will have a Labour government after the next election, and for Labour voters, immigration ranks lower in importance than the economy, healthcare, education, and housing. It seems that, in Labour supporting areas, people would welcome a Labour government which presented a plausible promise to sort the issue out and get on with more important things.
An overcentralised system
To help with this, the Fabian Society have just published a proposal which they hope could form a basis for a Labour policy. The core aim would be to depoliticise and decentralise the system, and to reduce the need for complex legal disputes over individual cases.
They argue that the root of our problem lies in our way of dealing with immigration. Britain is unique in concentrating immigration policy, legislation, implementation and individual decision making in a single central government department, with little scrutiny, or public confidence, and with little involvement of other government departments, local authorities and the other agencies which have to deal with the consequences. The result is a system which fails by its own standards, and commands little public support. And ministers, who are blamed for every decision, are tempted to ever more draconian announcements. The paper proposes that these functions should be split.
A policy framework
The aim would be a policy framework which could outlast any single administration, giving confidence to all concerned that the rules were fair, realistic, and would not be changed on a whim. The policy would be based on three principles: public consent; a commitment to human rights and law; and rules which are seen to be fair and, crucially, enforced. There should be public consultation through a Green Paper on the principles of the policy, which Parliament would then set.
The present confusing network of laws (many of them created through secondary legislation with little or no Parliamentary scrutiny), would be simplified to reflect those principles. A new, independent agency would be responsible for individual decisions on asylum within the framework of the policy. Responsibility for the settlement of migrants would be delegated, with funding, to local authorities and local agencies. There would be much greater transparency, with publication of data to secure public confidence that the system is fair, and being implemented properly. An annual report to Parliament would enable them to review and refine the policy.
A Migrants’ Commissioner (like the Children’s Commissioner) would be appointed to ensure that the voices and experience of migrants are represented to government and other agencies.
Migration is a global issue. Patterns change in response to climate change and conflicts, and volumes are increasing. This calls for review of rules, and international cooperation, so Britain should actively support solutions which recognise the humanitarian and economic issues, and distribute the costs fairly. One element of this would be for Britain to return to, and help reform, the EU Dublin agreement on asylum.
The default assumption for immigration policy would be that immigrants wish to be integrated as fully contributing members of society. A regular five year track to citizenship would be established, and the price of visas and citizenship applications would be reduced to simply cover the cost of administration. Any asylum seeker still awaiting a decision after six months would be entitled to work, reducing isolation and poverty, and enabling them to make a visible contribution to the economy.
The economic goal of the policy would be to ensure that the main beneficiaries of immigration are the communities immigrants join. To achieve this, the points system would be revised, to focus on raising GDP per head, rather than total GDP. To prevent employers from using immigrants to hold down wage levels, the report proposes a wage floor, 20% above the national living wage, for visa applicants, and the abolition of the rules which tie low-skilled immigrants to a specific employer, which make it easy for employers to exploit workers.
A practical way forward?
For far too long, immigration policy has been about political posturing, with little attention to what is practicable, let alone humane. By contrast, this report is a serious, if ambitious, practical proposal, which offers a solution to the problems which legitimately worry people about immigration. Because it is not an issue which inflames Labour voters as it does Conservatives, an incoming Labour government has the chance to sort out a long-standing problem.
The current situation has caused much anger and misery. This could be a way forward.