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  1. The Staggers
5 April 2023

What would a “liberal” immigration system even look like?

Labour needs to shed its squeamishness around tackling the issue – the government's fumbling is an open goal for credible progressives.

By Jonathan Portes and Satvinder Juss

Immigration to the UK is at the highest level in recorded history. Large numbers of refugees have come from Ukraine and Hong Kong, and there are workers and students from countries like India, Nigeria, and Pakistan. However, there is little sign of a backlash: the British public, which now sees migration in a broadly positive light, appears intensely relaxed. The Channel crossings of asylum-seekers on small boats are a different matter. Their numbers are much smaller but public and political opinion both agree that this is unacceptable. How to stop it is another matter.

This poses a dilemma for the government. The sharp rise in worker and student migration splits the Conservative Party and the Brexit coalition. The economically liberal and free-market wing argues that increased skilled migration from outside the EU is a visible success of the Brexit project, while the nationalist-populist and xenophobic faction says that this misses the point: Brexit was about reducing immigration across the board. Meantime, the Government focuses on performative cruelty on Channel crossings.

But Labour is even more reluctant to discuss the topic. This reflects Labour’s own historic nervousness. Even before Brexit, immigration was seen as an electoral weakness, and its response was clumsy and counterproductive, from Gordon Brown’s “British Jobs for British Workers” to Ed Miliband’s “Controls on Immigration” mug). Then, during the Brexit debate, Labour backed itself into a corner: it supported single market membership, but it triangulated over free movement. After Brexit, its substantive policy difference with the Government is minimal. It has avoided supporting the obnoxious Rwanda policy and the “Illegal Migration Bill” on Channel crossings, but its counterproposals are only to be more efficient and effective. Apart from reneging on Keir Starmer’s unrealistic pledge to restore free movement, it has said almost nothing.

[See also: Don’t assume that migrant-born politicians should be pro-immigration]

But doesn’t Labour need to appear “tough” on migration? The answer is that it is far from obvious that the public is either this reactionary or – after 15 years of such promises – this gullible. The government recently announced that 12,000 migrants from five countries with highest asylum success rates will have their applications processed without interviews; despite criticism that this amounts to an “amnesty”, it has met with little public reaction.

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So there’s a paradox: public opinion has never been more receptive to a progressive migration policy, but Labour is unwilling even to discuss it. What would such a policy look like, and how would it be different? There is no simple answer. The economic liberals are correct that the current system is reasonably “liberal” and well-designed; but equally the populists are right that migration is not just an economic issue. Progressives must address both.

First, the UK has one of the most restrictive policies in the world on the right to family re-unification, which separates not just migrants and potential migrants, but many settled Britons from their spouses, children, and elderly parents. And why should UK children born to resident migrant parents not automatically have status?

Second, the system is both byzantine and complex. And while high visa fees for workers coming here to work in highly paid jobs rarely cause hardship, visa fees for those seeking settlement with their families after legal entry are exorbitant, while those who fall foul of the “no recourse to public funds” rule, through bad luck or because they drop out of the system, face severe hardship.

For the sake of relatively small financial savings in the short-term, this hinders integration and stores up large long-term costs. Similarly, allowing tens of thousands of migrants without legal status, most of whom cannot realistically be deported, to continue to exist on the margins of society, often excluded from legal work, makes little sense. A radical simplification and streamlining of the system, combined with a regularisation programme for long-term residents without status, could reduce costs both for government and migrants, and more importantly have longer-term social and economic benefits.

All these represent long-overdue liberalisations; but there is also a progressive case for tightening the current system. The end of free movement, combined with a system which permits work visas only for higher-paid and highly skilled workers, was supposed to create incentives for businesses to increase pay, to improve conditions for resident workers, and to train and invest, hence increasing productivity. Indeed, ministers have taken exactly this line with the hospitality sector, refusing its pleas for a special visa scheme to address labour shortages. But in the care sector – where, directly or indirectly, both the funding and regulatory framework are the responsibility of government – it refuses to practice what it preaches. Almost uniquely, work visas can be issued for jobs paying only the minimum wage. Unsurprisingly, the result has been a massive surge in those coming, perpetuating poor pay and conditions, and sometimes exploitation, in this sector. This should be an obvious open goal for a credible and progressive opposition.

[See also: Why are voters so relaxed about record immigration?]

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