The government’s post-Brexit immigration policy must take this into accountby Aarti Shankar / January 4, 2018 / Leave a comment
The New Year brings with it new Brexit decisions for the government. Following last month’s breakthrough in negotiations, the focus has been on what point the UK wants its future bilateral relations with the EU to take on the spectrum of Norway to Canada. But the government must also plan seriously for other key policy areas that will be affected by the UK’s withdrawal. Immigration is among the most important of these.
Although undoubtedly a key aspect of the referendum result, the government has since failed to engage in a proper debate on immigration. On Wednesday it was reported that Home Secretary Amber Rudd has privately urged Prime Minister Theresa May to remove student immigration numbers from the government’s tens of thousands a year net migration target. This is a reheated argument that, while important to consider, falls well short of the detail and engagement needed in order to devise a new immigration system that both meets the needs of the UK economy and addresses public concern.
The government will not be able to stay silent on this issue for much longer—its immigration White Paper is already substantially delayed but is finally due out soon. It will be followed shortly after by an Immigration Bill. But before laying out its proposals for a post-Brexit immigration system, the government must first understand where public opinion really lies on this issue. Too often the debate on Brexit and immigration is simplified, without any meaningful engagement with what the public really thinks—either the Brexit vote is dismissed as nativist, or it is deemed a mandate to pull up the drawbridge. A new study by Open Europe, “Beyond the Westminster Bubble,” attempts to overcome this. We combined a 4,000-person ICM poll across Great Britain with a series of focus groups in England conducted by Public First to provide an evidence base for a sensible conversation about future immigration policy.
We found that the public does want to see immigration reduced, with some support still shown towards the “tens of thousands” target. But this appears largely driven by a “something is better than nothing” principle—we found that the majority would prefer a flexible system with controls to manage immigration, rather than one that prioritises simply reducing numbers. Even among Leave voters—for whom we found immigration is a much more…