Summary: Labour needs to articulate its policies on immigration before the Brexit negotiations get set in stone. It cannot keep ignoring real concerns about immigration and the fact that if it is not addressed satisfactorily it will be very difficult for Labour to win a general election. Jeremy Corbyn is resisting reduction in the free movement of people from the EU. He understands that significant restrictions to immigration will simply crash the economy. A carefully thought out Migration Impact Plan could help to persuade voters that immigration is manageable and indeed could be of benefit to areas most affected by migration. However many will be very difficult to persuade.
There is no doubt that Labour is much more relaxed about immigration than the Tories or UKIP. We know that about 1/3rd of the 9 million who voted Labour at the last election backed Leave. Their concerns about immigration must be addressed if Labour is to be seen to respond to the results of the referendum seriously. Labour needs to attack immigration as an issue on several fronts. Firstly it must row back against the continuing negativity about migrants, explaining again and again what everyone knows. For many years Labour has made far too little effort to counter the right-wing anti-immigrant tone of Tory governments and the right-wing media. It has suited recent governments obsessed with austerity and deficit-reduction to blame the consequences of their policies on immigration. Immigrants are blamed for the stresses on the NHS, overcrowding in our schools and the shortage of affordable housing. They are not the benefit scroungers demonised by the right-wing tabloids. Very many are forced to accept poorly paid, unpleasant jobs that the locals are not prepared to countenance. They often live in substandard accommodation with minimal complaint. They are young, ambitious and energetic. They are eager to make success of their lives. Their demands on the NHS are small principally because they are young.
In reality our country simply cannot function without high levels of immigration. Already half of our migrants are not from the EU and come across borders that we control totally. Yet we let them in because our country simply couldn’t function without them. Restricting immigration to under 100,000 as the Government wants will simply crash our economy. The NHS and social care sectors would simply cease to function without migrants. Boosting the living wage as John McDonnell has promised makes many more jobs attractive, and clamping down on zero hours contracts will help to suppress some of the worst labour practices that exploit immigrants. Building very many more affordable houses in high cost areas will also ease these pressures, but these are all well into the future long after Brexit has happened.
At present non-EU immigrants must have the offer of a job, and in certain jobs there are quotas to try and keep numbers under control. Even if we maintain free movement from the EU we need to manage migration much better. We need to know who was coming into the UK, where they will work and what demands on local services they might make. We also have to start tracking who is actually leaving the UK, something that can be done very easily by putting exit passport information on airlines, railways and ships.
However the result of the Referendum means that politically we have to accept restrictions on EU migrants. One of the most straightforward things we could do is simply require that EU migrants are allowed to enter the UK only if they have a formal documented job to go to which has already been advertised within the UK but remain unfilled. Unlike the rules for non-EU migrants, there would be no quota limits. If you have a job offer you can get in to the UK. A symmetrical arrangement could then apply to British workers wishing to take a job in the EU. The restrictions on non-EU migrants would stay as they are which is of course how they were managed under the then Home Secretary, Theresa May. The migration rate would be set by the demands of the UK economy. The best way of reducing that rate is to improve the quality of vocational training at every level given to our own children.
Labour has already identified the need for a Migrant Impact Fund, money used to offset the strain locally imposed by migration. How big might this turn out to be? The amount of money suggested by the Government is quite derisory. Amber Rudd promised £140 million or about £540 per head. Compared with the substantial sums of money distributed from central government to local authorities to pay for schools, the NHS and many other services this is quite inadequate. Money needs to be distributed to the local authorities in proportion to their receipt of immigrants. This must be paid immediately in anticipation of their arrival locally and their starting to pay taxes. All immigrants intending to remain in the UK should complete a form that allows local authorities to plan for their arrival satisfactorily. Specifically we need to know:
- Where is the immigrant family going to live and work? The relevant local authority must be informed.
- How big is the family? Current NHS budget runs at about £1800 per head (official figures).
- How old are the children? Allows schools to plan for space. Per-pupil funding at present is highly variable but averages around £4500 per annum. In addition the pupil premium should be added for immigrant children for three years at £1900 per annum particularly if they will need additional teaching to bring them up to the local standards.
- Can they speak English? Some money must be provided for local authorities to enable English-language lessons to be provided.
This adds up to probably around £5000 per annum for the average migrant or about £1.6 billion per annum for new migrants. It sounds a lot but it is a tiny fraction of current government spending. These costs must translate into proportionate changes in the allocations nationwide made to local government to fund the NHS, education etc.
Above all, Labour must hammer home a fundamental number which shows how much the problem is exaggerated. Current immigration is only increasing our population by about one person in 200 per annum. Immigration is not a massive invasion rather a relatively minor perturbation but one that is critical to the functioning of our society. Problems arise when immigration is not spread uniformly across the country and the xenophobic opinions of UKIP and the right-wing media are allowed to go unchallenged. The Migrant Impact Fund when properly funded could substantially change the view of communities about incomers. Without it Labour will have an uphill battle against entrenched right-wing opinions of many otherwise centre-left voters.