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, Bright Blue researcher James Dobson and Tory MP Sir Gerald Howarth write on how our immigration system should look after we leave. Follow the series on #BrexitFuture
There’s little doubt that the British public’s decision to vote to leave the European Union in 2016 was, in part, motivated by dissatisfaction with Britain’s current immigration system.
According to the British Election Survey, immigration was the most important issue for ‘leave’ voters in the campaign. While many politicians have recognised this dissatisfaction, few have sought to outline a vision of what Britain’s immigration system should look like after Brexit.
Bright Blue has conducted a significant amount of public opinion polling on this issue. Drawing on the findings of this polling, we have outlined a post-Brexit immigration system that would demand the support of the British public. But, to achieve this public support, the Government will need to significantly reform the current immigration system.
First, the Government must abandon its net migration target. The target - which aims to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands - has been missed in every quarter since its introduction in 2010. It is arbitrary and indiscriminate, and the consistent failure to meet it has contributed to a belief that immigration is ‘out of control’, and detrimental to this country.
To replace the target, the Government should introduce new targets – on gross numbers and the visa process – for different categories of migrants. This would ensure targets are much more aligned with public opinion. Our polling, for example, shows that the public are extremely relaxed about the current number of international students studying in the UK, the number of skilled migrants coming to the UK, and the number of migrants traveling to work in the NHS. Yet the current net migration target takes no account of this nuance in public opinion and lumps all forms of migration together.
“Britain’s impending withdrawal from the EU presents an opportunity for the Government to fundamentally reform Britain’s immigration system”
The Government must also do more to promote social integration. Many migrants in the UK are unable to speak basic English. This has a detrimental effect on integration since it prevents members of different communities mixing and communicating. But it is equally detrimental to migrants’ life chances.
The focus on English language standards in the recent social integration Green Paper was welcome. The Green Paper promised increased funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses, which had previously been cut by the Conservative Government.
But the Government’s former integration tsar, Louise Casey, has warned that this funding increase is much too small to “heal a nation”. In order to establish sustainable funding for ESOL courses, the Government must think more innovatively. It should learn from the higher education sector and introduce income contingent loans to cover the cost of migrants’ ESOL courses. This loan would only be repaid if the migrant then gained a job which paid above a certain threshold. This would ensure that the migrant only repaid the loan if they directly benefited from the course.
Finally, the Government should make it a requirement for all migrants in the UK - if they want to receive any working-aged benefits - to prove that they can speak English by having an approved qualification, or at least be working towards one. This would demonstrate the Government’s commitment to improving English standards, and would improve standards in hard-to-reach communities which have been slower to learn English.
Britain’s impending withdrawal from the EU presents an opportunity for the Government to fundamentally reform Britain’s immigration system. This opportunity must be used to create a system that the public supports. Our research shows that scrapping the net migration target, establishing new bespoke targets for different groups of migrants, and focusing more on social integration would substantially increase public confidence.
James Dobson is senior researcher at the liberal conservative think tank Bright Blue