The time has come to stop apologising for our approach to immigration in government and to get serious in thinking about what the next Labour government will do in this most difficult policy area. Is it possible to devise a One Nation immigration policy?
I’m more than happy to defend the last government’s record on immigration. Let’s not forget it included the points-based system – a simplified but sophisticated immigration framework which could flex in line with the skills needs of the country; an e-borders system that made it possible to count people in and out of the country again after the Tories had scrapped embarkation controls; a single and stronger Border Agency and much improved procedures for providing a safe haven for asylum seekers.
And I’m happy to hold the Tory-led government to account for its failures, in particular, its decision to use a crude cap on numbers as its ‘tough on immigration’ tactic. Add to this the mess it has made of border security and there is certainly a record of failure to be exposed.
However, neither a robust defence of our record nor an attack on this government will be enough to take us into the next election and into government.
That’s why I welcome the publication by Sarah Mulley and Matt Cavanagh at IPPR of a set of principles to guide future immigration policy.
First, it’s a good thing to set out principles at all. Debate on immigration policy and election pledges in this area are too often based on broad statements verging on prejudice on the one hand tied to very specific process proposals. It is unusual for any party to put forward a set of values and principles on which to base their approach.
Second, these feel like the right set of principles. The first four are about democratic accountability; the rule of law; respect for human rights and equality; and competence in delivery. They argue that as foundation principles these should be amenable to agreement across the political and policy spectrum. While the principles may be agreed, I expect there to be considerable argument about the extent to which any set of policies – and certainly the record of this government – has fulfilled them.
The next four are the meaty proposals. They represent an attempt to outline those principles which should underpin a progressive immigration policy.
The first is that migration policy should ‘measure what can be measured’ and should aim to increase net economic and fiscal benefits. This principle rightly recognises the potential economic benefits from migration. However, arguing that it should be possible to determine some metrics for this also demonstrates the complexity in coming up with these measures. That is not to argue against trying, but we should be aware that there is a real risk that too much focus on these difficulties will simply reinforce people’s views that immigration measures and statistics are unreliable – and will further reduce their confidence in policy proposals.
Furthermore, why should the public listen to politicians spouting about the theoretical benefits of immigration if they aren’t also willing to engage with people’s fears about immigration and some of the real, localised impacts which aren’t always positive. It is this problem which is well addressed by the next three principles – that policy should take account of social and cultural impacts which are less easily measured; that distribution matters ie the costs and benefits of immigration are not evenly distributed between individuals, economic groups or geographical areas; and that migration policy should aim to at least recognise the impact on the wider world and particularly the countries from which immigrants come.
Finally, the paper’s last two proposed principles give welcome recognition to the fact that, in migration policy, numbers matter and that there needs to be realism about what government policy can – and can’t – influence.
These may or may not all be the right principles – there will certainly be argument about how to measure benefits and costs and the specifics of how they could be delivered – but the argument that we should be making progress with this positive policy discussion and that we need a framework for the process is a good one. Let the debate commence.
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