The election provides politicians with an opportunity to secure consent for a post-Brexit immigration system, writes Jill Rutter
With the publication of the Conservatives and other party manifestos this week, we now have an idea of the direction of future immigration policy, as well as how the opposition parties will frame their views.
The Liberal Democrat manifesto commits to standing up for the benefits of immigration. It wants visas and immigration cases to be processed fairly and efficiently. The party proposes significant changes to student migration, taking this group out of the net migration target, and bringing in post-study work visas for graduates in STEM subjects. The Liberal Democrat manifesto is by far the most explicit and generous on refugee protection. The Liberal Democrats also say they support the principle of freedom of movement, but offer little extra detail on this key issue.
Labour’s manifesto is short on explicit policy commitments, although the party now wants a post-free movement system of managed European Union migration, while seeking the closest possible trade deal with the EU. The manifesto also commits to ending indefinite detention of people in the asylum system and reviewing the dispersal system for asylum-seekers.
In contrast, the Tories are far tougher on immigration, although the manifesto uses different language when setting out proposals to combat discrimination and promote integration. There is also little mention of EU migration, perhaps because ‘team Theresa’ recognises that control over EU migration may not be achieved over the next five years of government if we have a transitional period after Brexit.
The Conservative manifesto promises to ‘bear down from immigration outside the EU’ and ‘toughen the visa requirements for students,’ who will remain in the net migration figures. Regrettably, the Tories also propose to increase the minimum income threshold needed to bring in non-EU family, a policy that has already divided families and caused much heartache, disproportionally among the south Asian communities whose votes the Tories now want to win. There are hints of an overhaul of the asylum system, with more refugee settlement from zones of conflict, alongside tougher rules for those who arrive directly on our shores seeking protection. The manifesto also commits to keeping the net migration target as an aspirational goal, while not specifying when a date when the government might achieve it.
So now we have three manifestos and three sets of proposals for a parliament where immigration policy will be at the fore. Leaving the EU will require major changes to almost all aspects of immigration. As such, it is chance to reset policy: to build an immigration system that is efficiently administered, works for the economy, protects refugees and has public trust and support.
Will the manifesto proposals achieve all of these aims? Probably not, and over the days there will undoubtedly much comment on the Tories’ proposals, with university vice-chancellors and business leaders keen to shoot them down. But those who want reforms to immigration need to look beyond the noisy debate of the campaign and think about constructive alternatives.
A key issue for the next government is future EU and non-EU work migration routes. We will need to ensure that our businesses and public services have access to the staff that they need, while at the same time supporting the training of British workers. British Future wants the next government to hold the UK’s first comprehensive immigration review, enabling it to develop long-term policy and workable performance measures to replace the flawed net migration target. The next government must also uphold this country’s commitment to refugee protection, as well as helping those who are given sanctuary in this country contribute to their new communities and rebuild their lives.
The picture for integration looks somewhat more positive. It is good news that the Conservatives have committed to implementing a national integration strategy. Getting integration right helps different sectors of society live well together; it also helps to ease some public anxieties about the impacts of immigration.
For above all, the next government must restore public trust in the immigration system. This ‘reset moment’ offers parliament the opportunity to do this. But meeting this challenge will require politicians to engage with the public, to listen to their anxieties and seek consensus on constructive solutions to this important issue. Most people do not see immigration as a binary ‘for’ or ‘against’ issue, but have pragmatic and considered views. The most important manifesto challenge is for candidates and party leaders to get out on the streets, engaging the public in a national conversation on immigration – and through this to secure consent for a post-Brexit immigration system.
Jill Rutter is director of strategy and relationships at British Future. She tweets at @jillyrutter
You can read Immigration: The manifesto challenge here
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