It is now clear that the Government have dropped the ball on immigration. An urgent rethink is needed if they are to avoid paying a heavy price at the next election.There is no doubt about public concern. Immigration remains one of the top three issues on which voters say they will base their choice in 2022 or before, while nearly two-thirds want to see a major reduction in immigration levels
It is also clear that immigration was a major factor in the outcome of the referendum. Indeed, it was the top issue of voter concern on the eve of polling day in June 2016, according to Ipsos MORI Some suggest that voters’ main motivation was about control of immigration rather than its reduction, but that ignores many years of consistent concern about the number of immigrants and their impact on all our public services.
The Government has clearly lost its way. The transition agreement is useless from the point of view of reducing immigration. Free movement for EU citizens is to continue for nearly three years from now. Worse, all those who come in that period will have the right to claim permanent residence here. Even less acceptable, it appears that they will have rights to bring in partners, and possibly future partners, that are greater than the rights enjoyed by British citizens.
Ministers speak of an “Implementation Period”, but what are they going to implement? Beyond that period, there is only a thick fog, as the Government have refused to publish their proposals on future immigration arrangements with the EU. As a result tourists, students, businesspeople and family members still have no idea whatsoever of what barriers, if any, will stand in the way of future travel to and from the EU.
Meanwhile, net migration from outside the European Union has risen to over 200,000 per annum, its highest level since 201, and equivalent to the population of York arriving every year. The present Government have done nothing to reduce it despite a number of useful recommendations from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC).
It seems that the Government feels under very little pressure on immigration. Certainly, the Home Secretary has shown no interest at all in concrete steps to reduce immigration. That may be because, as an economic liberal, she is sympathetic to the pre-emptive cries of alarm from industry.
But employers’ claims that a reduction in immigration for lower-paid work would harm the economy are simply not supported by the evidence. Indeed, large inflows of cheap labour may have hindered productivity growth, while they have certainly disincentivised training of UK workers by employers. Meanwhile, in 2014/15, the working age benefit bill for EU migrants in the UK was over £4 billion or about £12 million per day – a huge sum.
Unfortunately, Rudd is not alone in her view. Apart from the Prime Minister, no Cabinet Minister shows any sign of understanding the seriousness of what many will regard as a betrayal of their support for Brexit. Certainly, there is no pressure from the opposition. Such little as has been said by the Shadow Home Secretary, points to yet more immigration. The last time Labour was in power, net migration quadrupled in their first two years, and shot up further when they, almost alone in the EU, admitted East Europeans to our labour market with no transition arrangements. For the time being, Labour is pre-occupied with internal strife. Meanwhile, the SNP continue to push a pro-mass immigration agenda very much against the views of Scots. Outside Parliament, UKIP have simply collapsed.
It may be that, in these circumstances, the Government feel that immigration can be put on the back burner. If so, they are seriously mistaken. Overall, net migration still stands at around a quarter of a million a year – close to the average of the last ten years, and enough to ensure that the UK’s population grows by the equivalent of Birmingham every two to three years. It may be that Ministers have been lulled into a false sense of security by the recent fall in net EU migration from its all-time high of 190,000 in 2016 to 90,000 in the year to last September. Yet this fall could well be reversed when present uncertainties subside.
That said, we are where we are. This is largely spilt milk. What is vital now is that we should not allow ourselves, in the next phase of negotiations, to be drawn into further concessions on immigration in exchange for concessions on trade. It is ominous that the European Council’s guidelines for the next phase, approved on Friday, call for “ambitious provisions on movement of natural persons, based on full reciprocity and non-discrimination among Member States.”
Meanwhile, the public have been repeatedly promised control over immigration – which they have rightly interpreted as a reduction. The public have had enough of excuses. Failure to deliver will severely shake public confidence, certainly in the Conservative Party, but also in our political system as a whole.