Too often the debate about immigration has been polarised. Be it in the Brexit referendum debates, or in national discussions before and since, the issue is frequently used to divide us. Yet immigration policy is too important – to community cohesion, to our economy, and to our national and local identities – not to have public confidence and consent. That is why today the cross-party Home Affairs Select Committee is calling for major reform and public involvement so Government can build consensus on immigration rather than allowing division to grow.
We’ve done a different kind of inquiry – listening to people across the country instead of just in Westminster. A year ago we launched a National Conversation on immigration, working with British Future and Hope not Hate to hold community meetings, citizens panels and public consultation the length and breadth of the country. The results were striking.
Far from being a polarised debate, there was considerable common ground. As British Future explain, “most of those who have taken part... are what we have termed ‘balancers’ who see both the pressures and gains of immigration”. Most people describe the benefits – especially skills – but they also raise concerns about the impact on public services and communities, or whether the system is effective and under control. And significantly they have different attitudes towards different kinds of migration – be it international students, low-skilled, high skilled, family reunion or refugees.
That’s why our report today sets out key areas for reform. We are calling for an overhaul in how immigration policy is made, as well making policy recommendations.
First the public need more involvement in an open and honest debate, informed by evidence. Successive Governments have got things wrong. Right now, there’s a lack of trust in data, we don’t have reliable facts on many aspects of the immigration system, rules are complex and hard to understand, and there’s little public or Parliamentary debate on the detail of how the rules should work.
We are proposing an Annual Migration Report, like the Budget each year, based on evidence from a strengthened and more independent Migration Advisory Committee, just as the Treasury has to take account of the Office for Budget Responsibility. The report should be based on national public consultation covering immigration targets and controls. But crucially it should also cover the wider issues including integration plans, action to deal with skills shortages, or to prevent employers exploiting immigration to undercut wages and jobs, and increased support for local communities, housing and public services.
Second, we think the net migration target isn’t working or effective as it treats all immigration as the same. Instead it should be replaced with an evidence based framework of different targets and controls and international students should be taken out of the targets altogether given the benefits they bring. There should be stronger links between immigration policy and the labour market, with clearer evidence on the skills we need and on local training too, so that Government and employers tackle skills shortages rather than leaving the economy so dependent on overseas recruitment. Focusing on a differentiated approach to different kinds of immigration is better for the country and economy, but also reflects public opinion and prevents the debate being polarised by treating all migration as the same.
Third, the system has to work properly and be robust. Frankly as long as there are so many errors and so many problems with enforcement, people won’t have confidence that the system is either fair or under control.
Of course there will always be different views about the detail of immigration policy. But given the right kind of serious and sensible approach there should be a chance of building greater confidence, agreement and consent. And now is the time to do it. Parliament hasn’t started yet to face up to the difficult debates ahead about what should happen to future EU migration as part of the Brexit process, and what the relationship will be with the single market and future trading relationship – something the Select Committee will be looking at next. But we stand no chance of healing the Brexit divides in the longer term unless we also face up to the wider concerns and divisions over the immigration system as a whole.
Immigration has always been an important part of our history, economy and culture and will continue to be a crucial policy area for our future. That is why it is so important to prevent escalating divisions, polarisation, anger or misinformation. To fail to respond risks doing long term damage to the social fabric, economy and politics of our country.
Yvette Cooper is the Labour MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, and chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee