Whoever becomes Prime Minister in a few weeks time will face an immigration quandary. The Brexit vote was in part a plebiscite on low skill immigration. Expectations of control have been raised, and sharply. Yet in the short term we are likely to see an increase in inflows from the EU as people arrive before the rules change in two years time, and even then it is not clear how far numbers will fall as we move to an employer-driven work permit system for EU citizens.
This political vacuum is likely to be filled with angry stories of betrayal. Casual expressions of xenophobia are reportedly on the increase in some parts of the country and the situation could deteriorate further unless the government takes the initiative to reassure people that action is being taken and someone is in charge.
So here are five things a new PM could announce on day one in No 10 to mitigate the disruptive impact of high immigration and help to reduce numbers (at least in the longer run).
First. Create a new department of state for immigration and integration. Given how important the issue has become in the past two decades a dedicated department is overdue, several European countries have them. It would be simple to create. Just move the Home Office’s crime and policing functions and the Office of Security and Counter Terrorism into the Ministry of Justice and bring in the integration work of the Department for Communities and Local Government. (Louise Casey’s current review of integration is likely to recommend some semi-permanent body to oversee it, so timing is good.)
It is true Whitehall has a strong immune system and tends to reject foreign bodies. But there is a powerful national mandate to both reduce immigration in general and make the economically desirable short-term flows work more efficiently, this mandate needs to be heard louder throughout government. The work permit system is better than its reputation suggests but could be improved further with more self-administration (within a cap) by universities and others. And the Border Force and Immigration Enforcement functions need a big increase in funding and manpower to do their jobs properly in our more globalised era. Indeed current annual spending on immigration functions by the Home Office is little more than 2bn or about 0.3 per cent of total public spending. That should be both sharply increased and ring-fenced.
Second. At the heart of the new department should be a beefed up Migration Impacts Fund (MIF). This was a Labour creation in 2008 in response to complaints from local authorities in areas of high immigration that their government grants did not cover the needs of a rapidly rising population. It was abolished by the coalition in 2010 then reinstated in 2015. In its earlier incarnation it had a tiny budget of around 35m a year. That should be increased ten-fold. And local authorities (and others) should bid for funds—after providing solid evidence of infrastructure pinch points—to smooth the rapid expansion of school places, for GPs surgeries and A&E departments under particular pressure and even for public housing. And the MIF needs a good PR chief, every grant should be plastered all over the local media.
Third. Constraints on public spending can translate into higher immigration. Cuts to nurse training budgets leads to more nurses coming from Portugal or Poland (the number of training places fell by one fifth 2010 to 2013). The same is true for paramedics and care workers. And if we cannot make working as a science or maths teacher attractive enough to young British people, which is at least partly about money and the lucrative alternatives on offer, then we will have to import them. Austerity in other words needs an immigration audit.
Fourth. We need a high profile commission to consider the ways in which it can be made more attractive for employers to hire and train British citizens. Once outside the EU it would be possible to provide financial incentives for employers of low-skill or vulnerable citizens with funding for this, and the MIF, coming from a small National Insurance surcharge on non-Brits. But even before that is possible we need to consider why the private sector has under-invested in Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and IT skills. One reason: it is too easy to bring trained people from outside the EU on skilled worker or intra-company transfer schemes—151,000 such visas were granted last year alone. Moreover, that number includes 60,000 dependents. The right for people on work visas to bring in dependents needs to be reviewed.
Fifth. Our oversight of people coming in and out of the country and our migration statistics in general need a radical overhaul and, without re-opening the ID card debate, we need to begin building some kind of population or household register. Home Office officials reckon that 20 per cent of the roughly 2m who arrive on visas every year overstay. Many people who voted Brexit have an uneasy sense that the people running the country don’t know how many people are here or where they are. And they are right. Having a more transparent and secure connection between citizens (including temporary ones) and the state, without triggering fears of Big Brother, remains unfinished policy business.
Some of the above proposals have cost implications but none require changes to current legal frameworks. Others, including the creation of a new department, are partly symbolic. But symbols are important. A shiny new department would represent a kind of collective mea culpa from the political class to the country’s mass immigration scepticism. Most of all people want to see that the country’s political and administrative brain is fully engaged in responding to their wish to balance a return to more moderate inflows with the least possible damage to the economy.
David Goodhart is head of the Demography, immigration and integration unit at Policy Exchange. This blog is based on an article in the July 3rd issue of the Sunday Times.