With this week marking one year until Britain officially leaves the EU, HuffPost is running a series of blogs answering big questions still left unanswered about our Brexit future. Today, Tory MP Sir Gerald Howarth and Bright Blue researcher James Dobson write on how our immigration system should look after we leave. Follow the series on #BrexitFuture
Immigration has been an incendiary issue in UK politics ever since Enoch Powell’s speech 50 years ago. During the Blair years, there was a deliberate policy of accelerating new Commonwealth migration not least ‘to rub the Tories’ noses in it’, resulting in 2.2million (twice the size of the population of Birmingham) new migrants arriving between 1997 and 2010. As Guardian journalists Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt put it in 2015, New Labour failed to predict a surge in immigration and their miscalculation has shaped British politics ever since. Communities across the UK are protesting at the demand for more housing which this dramatic growth in population has generated.
The wake up call only came during the 2010 general election when Gordon Brown was caught on microphone referring to a Rochdale pensioner and lifelong Labour supporter, Gillian Duffy, as a “bigoted woman” after she raised concerns about immigration.
This long-overdue reckoning also resulted in the Conservative undertaking to reduce net numbers to below 100,000 from the then prevailing levels of 250 – 300,000.
Anger in Labour-held seats across the country finally forced the party’s leadership to declare that it wasn’t racist to express concern about immigration and the issue undoubtedly became a key factor in the EU referendum two years ago with the promise of recovering control of our borders garnering much support.
So, now as Brexit beckons just 12 months away, fashioning a policy which both addresses those concerns whilst ensuring we have access to valuable skills from overseas is the challenge. At Leave Means Leave, we believe the UK should have a bespoke British work permit system, its eventual aim being to reduce net migration to around the levels last seen in the mid-1990s, i.e. less than 50,000.
There is much work to be done to fashion a system which benefits the economy but reassures a concerned public
The public understands that highly-skilled migration is beneficial to Britain. Therefore, there should be no cap on the most highly skilled and entrepreneurial who wish to come to this country. Companies like Airbus and BMW with manufacturing plants across the continent and UK need to be able to move skilled staff easily and a system of self-certification for such companies seems the sensible way forward.
There should be no further admission of EU workers for lower-skilled employment, subject to specified exemptions as advised by the Migration Advisory Committee, bringing EU migrants into line with present policy on non-EU migration for work.
This will allow us to place greater emphasis on the training, education and employment of the over 800,000 16-24 year old British citizens who are currently unemployed or inactive (as of December 2016).
To give the agricultural and horticultural sectors time to adapt, there will be a need for seasonal agricultural workers (SAWs) after Brexit, so reviving the post-war SAWs scheme to allow East European migration on short-term six-month visas to work in the industry should address that specific need. The number should be capped at 25,000 a year, tapered down over time to reflect an anticipated reduced need for workers as businesses invest in new and efficient technological systems.
Genuine international students should continue to be welcome in the UK. They are an asset to our economy and their time studying in UK universities fosters valuable cultural ties. They should continue to be counted in net migration statistics, as are all other migrants who come to the UK for more than a year, but singled out as a specific item.
Doctors and nurses should also continue to be able to come to the UK under the work permit scheme, as both qualify as highly skilled workers. Whilst limits on training places in medicine and nursing should be lifted to ensure that we can ensure an adequate number of doctors and nurses to meet the needs of the population, we should concentrate on training our own young people as the morality of siphoning off skilled people from less developed countries is highly questionable.
We need to apply and upgrade Border Force technology and Home Office systems should be fully integrated with other departments to ensure that data is available on stocks and flows in a timely fashion. For example, data on entry and exit should be linked up with the visa system as well as data on National Insurance Numbers.
Only those who are granted permanent residence should be eligible for social benefits, housing benefits and social housing, in keeping with the principle of fairness that we should all have to pay in to the system. EU nationals who arrive before Brexit should be allowed to apply for permanent residence after five years in the UK, a policy now accepted by both sides.
In this essential debate about migration and the EU, we should not forget that half of net annual migration into the UK is represented by non-EU migrants, something over which we have had control. There is therefore much work to be done to fashion a system which benefits the economy but reassures a concerned public.
Sir Gerald Howarth is the Conservative MP for Aldershot, and a board member of Leave Means Leave