What would a progressive immigration policy look like?

The Conservatives' net migration target is wrong but the centre-left cannot ignore the question of numbers.

Eric Pickles’s comments about Romanian and Bulgarian immigration, followed by today’s intervention by Migration Watch on the same issue, have sparked another lively media debate about migration policy.

The government have based their migration policy on a target to reduce net migration to less than 100,000 a year, one they seem likely to miss, not least because they cannot limit migration from elsewhere in the EU. Ed Miliband has suggested that Labour’s approach to migration will go beyond the confines of immigration rules (as it must, in light of EU migration). His interventions in the debate have focused on how economic and integration policy can respond to migration.

But underneath the regular political and policy arguments lies a more fundamental debate about what migration policy should be seeking to achieve. The Conservatives’ answer is that the purpose of migration policy is to reduce net migration. That is appealingly simple, but bad policy and bad politics.So what might a centre-left alternative look like?

The first thing to say is that the most fundamental responsibility of governments of all political hues should be to ensure that migration policy is democratically accountable, governed by the rule of law (including human rights law), and effectively implemented. Of course, this is easier said than done, and is sometimes uncomfortable for those on the left, involving as it does both difficult conversations with the public and highly sensitive decisions about individual cases involving vulnerable people.

Beyond this very basic responsibility, there is plenty of room for debate about what governments should try to achieve with migration policy. Many people would agree that one important objective should be to secure economic benefits for the UK. Indeed, this was arguably the driving motivation behind much of Labour’s immigration policy when in government, and has been a key criticism of the coalition’s approach.

But a centre-left or progressive migration policy must aim to do more than simply respond to the needs of business. Migration policy must be part of a strategy to form the economy we want, not just a tool to service the needs of the one that we have. A progressive migration policy must also seek to manage the cultural and social impacts of migration, take particular care to avoid increasing inequality, and pay particular attention to the impacts on vulnerable groups. This means tackling migration’s impacts not only through immigration rules, but also through wider social policy. Labour did not do enough of this in government, particularly in response to rapid migration from Poland and other countries after 2004.

However, there is a risk that this kind of approach to migration policy loses touch with the core metric that concerns the public: the impact of policy on migration flows. This was the trap that Labour fell into after 2004, when dramatic increases in immigration exposed a policy approach that seemed to the public to be much to laissez-faire on the issue of numbers.

The Conservatives' net migration target is wrong (not least because it over-simplifies and ignores much about migration flows that is important), but that does not mean that anyone in the migration debate can ignore the question of numbers. It is not enough to set immigration rules and then take no view on the pace and pattern of migration flows that result. Even those who believe that migration has generally been a good thing for the UK should accept that this does not mean that more migration would necessarily be even better: both costs and benefits are non-linear.

People on all sides of the immigration debate should agree that accurate and timely data on the scale, nature and pattern of migration flows are essential for good policymaking. This data is something the UK currently lacks, which makes the current debate about net migration levels even less productive. It is also reasonable to expect politicians and policymakers to respond quickly to rapid changes in migration. The right response will not always be about the immigration rules (indeed, as with EU migration, there are many circumstances when it cannot be), but the public are right to expect government to take steps to manage the impacts of migration.

The right approach to migration policy is necessarily more complicated then the Conservative’s net migration target. But it is also common sense: have a democratic debate, set fair rules and enforce them, increase the benefits (economic and social) of migration while managing the costs, pay attention to impacts on the most vulnerable, and keep a weather eye on the numbers.

The devil is in the detail, of course, but perhaps if everyone in the migration debate could agree on the question, we would get better answers.

Sarah Mulley is associate director at IPPR

She tweets as @sarahmulley

Home Secretary Theresa May makes a speech on immigration at Policy Exchange on December 12, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sarah Mulley is associate director at IPPR.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”