It is all too predictable. The new immigration figures published on Thursday have confirmed that the Government has made no progress in getting net immigration below the current level of one third of a million a year – let alone to the tens of thousands promised by David Cameron. So it is clearer than ever that the Brexit negotiations will be crucial if we want to bring the number of EU migrants down.
While the public has made its view plain, a battle is being waged in Whitehall over the terms of the future deal. And the political classes are showing signs of wriggling. They must not be allowed to damage the settlement and our future ability to control mass migration.
In choosing to leave the EU, a significant majority of voters showed they were profoundly concerned about massive levels of net migration.
It is now essential the result is accepted for what it was: an emphatic democratic mandate not just for the control of immigration but also for its significant reduction.
A recent opinion poll found that all Leavers and half the Remainers believe the referendum result should be respected. It would seem that Owen Smith MP, a candidate in the Labour leadership election, has failed to get the message. Smith said last week that, if elected, he would seek to block the opening of the Brexit negotiations unless a second referendum or a General Election were held. He is not alone. Former Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell has also suggested that MPs might want a ‘second go’ and possibly another national poll.
And Gavin Barrett, a prominent law professor, recently, suggested that the UK must ‘perform a U-turn’, by finding an ‘adequately democratically respectable way to reverse the public’s decision’ (presumably by asking the public repeatedly until they give the ‘right’ answer). One dangerous suggestion is Prof Barrett’s claim – supported by others – that a Norway-style solution would be an acceptable result of the Brexit negotiations.
This would mean Britain becoming a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) in its own right, preserving membership of the single market but with no say in its rules and no effective limits on immigration.
This would leave us in a worse situation than the one we have now. There are other siren voices, too, including from those of some prominent Brexiteers. They claim that, yes, the UK must now take sovereign ‘control’ of immigration policy but that we don’t necessarily have to reduce net migration!
But this would be a dangerous misreading of the most significant event in recent British political history. Immigration has been one of the top issues of public concern since 2013. By June this year, it was seen as the most important issue.
The public would see immediately that sovereign decision-making power over immigration, achieved through the Brexit vote, is worthless without cutting migrant numbers.
The real question now is: how might it be achieved?
Around half of net migration comes from the EU and will be covered in the Brexit negotiations. Since 70 per cent of EU migrants come here to work, that is the obvious place to start. The fact that about four-fifths of them are in low-skilled employment points the way forward. We should, after Brexit, require work permits for EU citizens on the same basis as we now require them for non-EU migrants.
Moreover, Migration Watch UK calculates that such a step would reduce net migration by something of the order of 100,000 a year. There would be little damage to the economy as low-skilled workers are, at best, neutral in their impact on the budget and productivity.
At the same time they add to pressures on our population which is now growing at half a million a year – the fastest rate for nearly a century and equivalent to having to build a city the size of Liverpool every year for the foreseeable future.
Employers will complain, of course. They will say that they cannot find replacements from the one-and-a-half million British workers who are unemployed. Well, they could try improving the wages and conditions for their staff.
A year or so ago a firm in Northampton imported several hundred workers from Eastern Europe to make sandwiches claiming that no British workers were available. We looked into the case and found that their advertisement demanded that applicants be available 24/7. How many British workers with families could apply under such conditions? We also learned later that the firm had not even approached the local Job Centre to find staff for them. This simply illustrates that firms could adjust if they had to.
The other half of net migration is from outside the EU. Here again there is one route that is much larger than the others. Students account for 60 per cent of all such inward migration. And the trouble is that they do not appear to be leaving.
Taking the average of the past three years, it seems the inflow was 123,000 a year while the outflow was 45,000. So, to put the point neutrally, about 78,000 a year are unaccounted for. This may partly explain the Prime Minister’s recent remark to the effect that universities would do well to be less reliant on foreign students.
Effective measures on non-EU students combined with work permits only for skilled EU workers could, over the medium term, reduce net migration to about 150,000 a year. Further reductions could be achieved by painstaking tightening of other parts of the system.
The seeming impossibility of removing unlawful entrants to the country is part of the problem – even when they have criminal convictions.
About half of all asylum claims, now running at 44,000 a year, are refused. Yet only half of those are actually removed. Immigration control is hard work. The devil is in the detail. Thankfully, there is still time to get this right. We have a new Government in power under a popular leader who has got off to an impressive start and who is faced with broken opposition.
Mrs May and her Ministers have more political space than at any time this century to address public disquiet over mass immigration. They know it would be folly to ignore the true significance of the referendum result.
The pressure for real and effective action is mounting.