Expert View

6 ways to think more clearly about immigration

by David Hannay | 16.08.2018

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

The UK is not the only country which is in a muddle over immigration policy, with politicians of all parties running scared of the subject and leaving the field wide open to populists and extremists – look at the US or Italy. But the UK is the country which most urgently needs to sort out its thinking on immigration. The issue is at the heart of the Brexit end game and it risks, as it did at the time of the 2016 referendum, driving us towards making unwise and unjustified choices.        

Here are six guidelines to clearer thinking on this sensitive topic:

1. Free movement is not the problem

We really do need to grasp that it is not the EU’s basic commitment to free movement, which will not change, that is the heart of the problem. The UK is simply not making full use of a whole range of administrative measures which are legitimate under EU law – registering EU immigrants when they arrive, returning them after three months if they have not found work. Other member states are doing this, Belgium or Denmark being good examples. And the recently reformed EU Posted Workers Directive offers more flexibility for the future.

Many of these EU-compatible ideas were in the CBI’s paper issued last week. So it makes no sense at all to treat free movement as a make or break issue in the context of joining the EEA or even of remaining in the EU.

2. We already control immigration from non-EU countries

The EU has no collective responsibility for controlling immigration into its member states from countries outside the EU. It never has had. Especially so for the UK, since we are not in the Schengen passport-free travel zone and are not going to be so. Third country immigration into the UK that is now running well ahead of immigration from the EU. And we do not have to take back control of that; we already have it.

3. Turkish immigration = Brexiter scaremongering

The risk of another great surge of immigration from new members of the EU is a shameless scare story. The possibility of 80 million Turks arriving on our doorstep if we stayed in the EU always was a lie, but now it can be seen to be so. Turkey is not any more moving towards accession. And as EU members we will have more say – including a veto – on the terms for other, much smaller states, joining than we would as outsiders.

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4. Students shouldn’t be in migration stats

We should take our universities right out of the immigration policy equation and stop treating students as economic migrants. Our higher education sector is one of our biggest invisible exporters –  second only to the US – but we are losing market share to our main competitors, like Australia and Canada, as a consequence of the barbed-wire entanglement of visa restrictions we have installed.

5. Take pressure off struggling communities

We do need to address more effectively the problems that high migration levels have caused around the country, whether for health services, for education or for housing. But these remedies are in our own hands. They do not require any say so from Brussels.

6. Skills shortages are a huge threat

We’ve just seen the biggest drop in EU workers in the UK since the ONS started recording such data. If we ignore the signs of deep concern in many sectors over their future ability to recruit from EU countries – whether we are talking about doctors, nurses and care workers, or seasonal agricultural workers, or those with digital and technical expertise or labour for our tourist industries – we will do so at our peril. It was, after all, the flexibility of our labour market which helped to drive economic growth in the period before the financial crash of 2008.

This autumn the government is due to publish a White Paper on post-Brexit immigration policy. Like everything else to do with Brexit, this is running far behind schedule. What would be intolerable would be if the government did not set out its thinking on this well ahead of the crunch decisions on Brexit, so that it can be tested in Parliament and in the country more widely.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

4 Responses to “6 ways to think more clearly about immigration”

  • A great article…but this is preaching to the converted. How to get this message across to those who voted leave, MPs etc so that we can have a people’s vote?

  • I agree 100%. A most helpful aid to clear thinking. Perhaps there might have been more stress on the issue of non-EU immigration, which is of curse totally under our control, and particularly the sensitive issue of where this has led to ghettos of mostly Asian people clinging to cultures that are very alien to your average Brit. Not least their attitude to women and, in many cases, making it difficult or impossible for women to behave like everyone else in terms of dress, who they consort with or marry, whether or not they learn to speak English, and so on.

    Also, we should be aware of when immigration is wrongly treated as the issue, rather than the wider and genuine concern regarding our failure to control, or even to try to control, the population of the UK, and its distribution within Britain. That certainly needs attention , but immigration, though certainly relevant, is only one aspect of it.

  • Great article. Listening to Tom Swarbrick on LBC this morning (sitting for James O’B 🙁 ) a lady called Vicky called in ranting on about how she had voted to Leave because of rampant immigration and how EU citizens can just come in and live and work and claim benefits, etc., that the NHS & public services were straining under the influx with no Government controls and it was all the EU’s fault. Although she did mention that she ‘adored’ her son’s Polish girlfriend and didn’t want her to leave, of course…. Tom Swarbrick did not put her right in not mentioning the EU Regs on the 3 month rule and that this had not been implemented by Tony Blair and continued under subsequent governments and including Theresa May’s reign as Home Secretary and then PM. This is scandalous. and downright outrageous. Why are people STILL unaware the it is OUR GOVERNMENT’S POLICIES and not the EU’s that caused uncontrolled immigration into the UK? I phoned in to LBC to put her right and was going to be put through but TS finished the Brexit session so didn’t have a chance so Vicky is still unaware of the EU policy. Oh, but anyway it’s OK for her son’s Polish girlfriend to stay as she ‘adores’ her…. Sometimes I feel so downcast that we are up against such ignorance. She must be a Daily Fail reader…i still see everyone buy it in Waitrose every day.

  • Point 5 needs a bit more detail. EU nationals living in the UK do contribute more to the exchequer than they take out in services, and also make a vital contribution to delivering those services (especially in the NHS and social care). However it is also very true in some areas of the UK population growth has outstripped service provision, with austerity cuts and freezes having a particularly damaging impact in areas such as North Cambridgeshire and parts of Lincolnshire where provision was already inadequate.

    The right wing media and politicians blamed the EU and EU nationals for the resulting strain on housing and services, though the population increase in the areas mentioned above was driven mainly by improvements in farming practices and technologies that led to an increase in demand for workers that could not be met locally. Regardless of where the workers come from the strains on services would still be there. The UK is bad at keeping track of population changes and planning for increases in demand for services, and that will continue to cause problems regardless of whether the UK is in or out of the EU, unless we stop finding scapegoats and actually tackle the real issues.