We must make migration work for all

by Hugo Dixon | 25.08.2016

While migration has on balance been good for the UK, it hasn’t helped everybody. Whatever happens to EU free movement, we must share the benefits of migration.

To coincide with the latest official figures – which show that net migration fell a tiny bit to 327,000 in the year to end March – all sorts of ideas about how to reform our migration system post-Brexit are doing the rounds. Non-EU citizens accounted for 190,000 of the total and EU citizens for 180,000 – with a net outflow of 43,000 British citizens making up the balance.

David Metcalf, head of the Migration Advisory Committee, told the Telegraph that low-skilled EU migration could be controlled via work permits – an idea InFacts has already said is being considered by the government. British Future, the migration thinktank, has reiterated its call for EU citizens already here to be allowed to stay. The IPPR, another thinktank, has called for EU citizens working in the NHS to have the automatic right to British citizenship.

Others have been calling for emergency brakes when the flow of EU citizens coming to the UK post-Brexit exceeds a certain level. Yet others think that it might be possible to reform the EU’s free movement rules, providing a perfect opportunity to stay in the bloc.

Brexit not the answer

Whatever is decided on free movement between Britain and the EU, we must make migration work for all. This is one of the lessons of the referendum. And it would be foolish to think that the mere fact of quitting the EU – if indeed that happens – will do the trick. After all net migration from outside the EU, at 190,000, is on its own above the government’s target of less than 100,000. The only way that Brexit on its own could allow Theresa May to hit this would by provoking a recession that prevents people from wanting to come here.

A policy of making migration work for all would have many elements. But the first step would be for the government to fess up that it won’t meet its target. Pretending that he would hit it was one of David Cameron’s greatest sins – which had the effect of undermining trust in government in general and the former prime minister in particular. It is good that Amber Rudd, the new home secretary, has already edged away from it – but ministers now need to abandon it.

The government should also make good on its commitment to relaunch a migration impact fund – to provide resources for communities facing waves of new migrants to invest in schools, surgeries and vital social services. Scrapping the fund launched by Gordon Brown and then failing to reinstate it despite promising to do so in last year’s election manifesto was yet another of Cameron’s cardinal sins. May should reverse this error and make sure the new fund is an ambitious one.

Beyond that, there are lots of other ideas that should be examined. One is to crack down more severely on illegal migration. This will probably become a bigger problem post-Brexit as EU citizens who don’t qualify for work permits might then try to work here illegally. Another is to invest more in skills so British people can compete more effectively on the world market. Yet another is to see if the tax free allowance could be restricted to people who have lived here for several years to discourage low-paid migrants.

British Future suggests that the government uses the Brexit vote to reset its immigration policy, by launching a comprehensive review. It also rightly recommends a “national conversation” on migration. The Remain camp’s reluctance to talk about migration during the campaign was another of Cameron’s errors. Whatever happens on Brexit, we must not keep repeating it.