How would I sum up the job of the new home secretary Amber Rudd when she thinks about immigration in a post-Brexit world? “Immigration might be good for your GDP, but it doesn’t help mine.”
A friend made the point when he visited London a few weeks ago. He isn’t racist, he has nothing against people who come here and work hard. He just found macroeconomic arguments hard to stomach when he’s heard of friends losing out on work because EU nationals have charged less for their time. Rudd won’t be able to crack immigration until she has a convincing and proven response to that line.
So how can she approach the problem?
Every country in the world can benefit from migration. The trick is to make sure it is properly managed and that the public believes it is managed properly. The majority of the British people haven’t had that level of confidence in the immigration system for years.
It is too early to talk about the detail of policy. We don’t know what our overall relationship with the EU will look like after Brexit, let alone whether EU nationals will continue to enjoy free movement rights. But it is not too early to talk about what the country needs from an immigration system.
First, the system needs to flex to the requirements of the labour market. At the most simple level, this means that, if a company cannot find skills or expertise locally, they should be able to import them. The economy won’t grow if companies cannot access the right talent.
But if ministers stop there, they will immediately fail. It is in nobody’s interest for particular sectors to be permanently reliant on foreign workers. Local workers should be given every opportunity to upskill. Businesses already play an important role in developing UK talent – companies which don’t develop their staff can only fail, after all. Surely, though, the immigration system can do more to inform long-term planning when government is thinking about how to improve the UK’s skills base.
Second, the system needs to be transparent. Businesses and migrants have to know what is expected of them, as with any area of law. At the same time, the public needs to know how it works – if a system is opaque, you’re probably hiding something.
That need for transparency goes beyond the letter of the law. If immigration is good for all of our GDP, then the public should be given clear impartial advice to explain why. Likewise, if there are losers from immigration, surely that also needs to be talked about. Only then can politicians decide what, if anything, can be done to help them.
Finally the immigration system has to be fair to everybody involved. Overseas workers should be welcomed, but the system has to ensure that they are not filling jobs that could be filled by local workers. If they’re here, helping the UK by bringing skills we need and contributing to society, we should surely say thank you by allowing them to plan their lives and settle here, if they wish to.
The home secretary doesn’t need to wait to make the system fairer. The world changed in lots of ways when the UK decided to leave the EU. I have to think that it changed most for the EU nationals already here. It must have felt like a country they had thrown in their lot with decided it wished they hadn’t bothered. To compound matters, they’ve been told they might not even be able to stay.
Something has to be done to reassure those people. The government says it fully expects EU nationals will stay but can’t make any promises. I get the argument – the PM wants to see how negotiations go with Brussels – but people aren’t bargaining chips and they deserve to be treated properly.
None of this will be easy. But if Rudd wants to give the public confidence, to balance the macro-economic arguments against personal experience, these three principles will set her off in the right direction.