Immigration has been good for the UK. People coming here from other parts of the world have used their skills and labour to build successful businesses, create jobs and keep our public services going, and freedom of movement has made us all better off.
But the benefits of immigration are not just economic; they are social and cultural as well. They exist not just in the millions of people who have found love and friendship, and started families, as a direct result of crossing borders, or in the millions more who would not have been born at all without immigration into the UK. They can be found, too, in contemporary British culture, art, music, sport, food – the things that make life worth living. All of these have been influenced and transformed for the better by people who have come to the UK from overseas and made their lives here.
In addition millions of us have benefited from our right to the free movement of persons, from the ease of travelling around the continent that we all enjoy to the right to live and work in mainland Europe – currently exercised by 1.3 million Brits, the fifth largest of any country in Europe. As Rafael Behr put it, ending free movement ‘limits the freedoms and opportunities attached to possession of a UK passport’.
Free Movement has been good for Britain and good for Britons.
Not everyone agrees. There are many reasons for the UK’s vote in 2016 to leave the European Union, but there is a broad consensus that concern over the level of immigration to the UK, especially from Eastern Europe was a significant factor. This leaves a dilemma at the heart of immigration policy. The most popular policy options – at least on the face of it – would be harmful to the UK and the people who live here. And the economic and other consequences of these popular policy options might well be rather unpopular. Faced with this dilemma, the Government has chosen to risk the economic harm of ending freedom of movement rather than what it sees as the political harm of retaining it in the face of public opposition.
This won’t just damage our economy and public services reliant on migrant workers such as social care. It also makes it more difficult for the UK to get a Brexit deal that preserves the other benefits of single market membership. That’s not what the public want. In Global Future’s April 2018 report Too High A Price? We found that when the public are presented with the government’s own modelling of the costs and benefits of different Brexit options, more than half prefer the deal with the smallest impact on the public finances even though that involves retaining freedom of movement.
But if freedom of movement is both beneficial in itself and part of the price of retaining the best possible trading deal between Britain and the EU, that does not have to mean simply keeping our immigration policy as it is. As the new Global Future report shows, there are a number of significant changes the UK can make to the way it controls immigration from the rest of Europe, whether it stays within the EU or not. European politicians and policymakers we interviewed were amazed the UK had not done more already to manage free movement within the existing rules – less, in fact, than many other EU countries.
There are four particular areas of public concern over immigration where the Government has the power to act within the existing freedom of movement rules. People worry that migration is not effectively monitored, so that the Government does not know how many people are coming into the country or what they are doing here. They worry about pressure on public services, housing and the benefits system. They worry about unfair pressure on jobs and wages. And they worry about migrants failing to integrate into British society.
As such, and contrary to the accepted wisdom in Westminster the public’s view is far more nuanced than simply ‘high-skill = good’ / ‘low-skill = bad’. In fact, as noted by NIESR in recently published research, the public want ‘high-quality’ migration – people who will play by the rules. As they say, control is not about numbers, it’s about ensuring that we screen-out not the low-skilled but the ‘low quality’ migrants – criminals and those who don’t want to work and contribute to society.
All of these concerns can and should be tackled more effectively under existing rules rather than by abandoning freedom of movement altogether. The UK is the only country within the EU to lack a national ID system – that should change. Introducing an e-ID card, similar to those used in Estonia or Belgium, with compulsory registration for those wishing to work or use public services, and those intending to stay for over 90 days would be beneficial for UK citizens too – providing a single, simple way of proving one’s identity and right to work and access benefits and services, as well as to vote, and bringing together information already held on individuals by the Government into a format whereby individuals use it more effectively. The anonymised data the underlying system would generate would also enable much more accurate population information, making it easier to allocate funding to areas facing rising migration pressures – a major source of public concern about immigration.
Pressures on jobs and wages are best tackled not by attempting to block access to employment by the European workers who contribute to our economy and keep our public services going, but by making sure there is a level playing-field, with proper inspections of industries most vulnerable to exploitation, and enforcement of employment law. We recommend that government press ahead with the recommendations in the Taylor Report to boost worker protections, and further invest in skills training to make sure local workers are properly equipped to compete.
Finally, Government could and should do much more on integration and community cohesion with a new Strengthening Communities Fund and better funding and tougher rules on learning the English language – essential to play a fulfilling role in British society.
All of these measures would go some way towards assuaging public concern about the impact of immigration. None of them would require the UK – whatever relationship it seeks with the European Union – to take the economic hit that would follow from ending freedom of movement and cutting the UK off from the closest possible trading relationship with the EU. Retaining freedom of movement need not mean doing nothing. Politicians should acknowledge that, and neither hide behind the EU as an excuse for failing to act nor insist on unnecessary self-harm.