The UK needs a fair and controlled immigration policy after Brexit

The UK needs a fair and controlled immigration policy after Brexit

Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s attempted u-turn yesterday, Labour remains consistently incoherent on the subject of immigration. As the Prime Minister neatly and correctly pointed out in her last statement to the House of Commons before Christmas, the shadow Home Secretary has said that freedom of movement should be maintained; the shadow Chancellor that we should have a fair deal on freedom of movement; and the shadow Brexit Secretary that we should have immigration controls.  She could also have thrown in Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesman, who succinctly set out his master’s policy by stating that the Labour Leader is “not concerned about numbers” and not seeking to reduce immigration.

So far so clear. But with Labour in disarray on immigration, post-Brexit the Prime Minister should set out her own aims and ambitions in this area. A good start would be to outline a fair immigration policy: fair for EU citizens, fair for the Commonwealth, and fair for citizens from across the rest of the world. But, most of all, fair for us too: all of us who are currently citizens living and working in this glorious country of ours.

Before I set out the policies that the Prime Minister should adopt, I fire a final shot across the bows of the Labour Party. If they fail to grasp this subject – not just by mentioning it in passing, but actually tackling it in a substantive and grown up fashion – then, as we saw on 23rd June, they will be toast. The question is simple: is immigration too high, too low, or about right? For all Labour’s shilly-shallying, the answer, just like the question, is simple. Immigration is too high.

Migration Watch has shown that net migration in the early 1990s was in the tens of thousands per annum. Between 1990 and 1996 it was 274,000, an average net inflow of 39,000 a year. This increased significantly under Labour and between 1997 and 2010, net migration averaged 200,000 per year, five times higher than under the Conservatives between 1990 and 1996. Jack Straw has admitted that this was a spectacular mistake, but Tony Blair and the Labour Party as a whole have yet to recant.

Now I don’t want to give you the wrong impression: we in Britain have always been an open, tolerant and welcoming country and rightly so. This should, must and will continue. For example, when it comes to those fleeing persecution and genuine asylum seekers, we have consistently given a caring and human response to successive humanitarian crises. I need only cite Jewish refugees fleeing Europe, or the Ugandan Asians fleeing Idi Amin, or more recently the Syrian Vulnerable Persons’ Relocation Scheme. But the public will only support our policy as a whole – economic migrants as well as refugees – when it is clear that Her Majesty’s Government has regained control. And finally, now we are leaving the EU, these controls can be put in place.

This next point is crucial. One of the reasons that I and other members of the European Research Group (ERG) have been arguing so vigorously for reciprocal rights – the right to remain for EU citizens already living and working in the EU, and our citizens living in Europe – is because immigration is about people. Yes, when it comes to migration, numbers are important and control is vital.  But we must never forget that we are talking about human beings, dare I say it, made in the image of God: real people with families, hopes and dreams just like the rest of us. And the Prime Minister gets it. I congratulate her now, as I did in Parliament recently, on prioritising reciprocal rights and putting people before process.

That said, on the doorstep, immigration remains a top issue of concern. People have legitimate questions about the pressure on our services: hospitals, housing, and schools.  Politicians ignore this at their peril. My political awakening was under Tony Blair, when immigration was a dirty word not to be mentioned for fear of being branded a racist. This was wrong and counterproductive. By failing to discuss let alone mention it, Labour’s failed policy on immigration has played into the hands of racists and extremists. This is precisely why it is necessary for politicians to stand up and discuss immigration: discuss it using sensible and moderate language – and control it with a tough but fair policy.

So what does a fair, grown-up, modern, compassionate, but tough and controlled immigration policy look like? I have six points and start with fairness. It is wrong and unfair for citizens from non-EU countries to have tighter controls and different rights and responsibilities from citizens coming from within the EU. Therefore, (1) my first point is a simple one of equity. All immigrants should be brought under the same work permit rules to ensure that there is a level playing field.

(2) Reciprocal rights for EU citizens living and working in the UK and UK citizens living in the EU. Importantly, this should only apply to those people already here on the date that we trigger Article 50. Setting an earlier date risks more legal wrangling and any later date leaves open the possibility of a last-minute dash to Britain from the failing EU.

(3) Our open, honest, clear and stated aim should be that immigration should be reduced.

(4) The “target” of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands should be abandoned. No government can control the number of citizens who choose to emigrate and live and work abroad. Therefore, no government can control net migration. To have an ambition or a direction of travel is fine, but a target not. Politicians should not make promises that they cannot keep. If we can’t deliver it: don’t promise it. Simple.

Migration Watch has led the debate in this field for a decade and more. My final two points are strengthened by being advanced by Migration Watch, for example in this report.

(5) There should be a selective key workers scheme for essential workers, for example a limited Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme.

(6) Benefits. There should be no income or housing benefits for five years for all immigrants – EU or otherwise.

Overarching all, I am acutely conscious of the significant number of unemployed in this country. As Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Youth Employment, each month we consider the latest employment figures. I celebrate that each month we have consistently seen that more and more of our young people are in employment or education. But at 13.1% or 587,000 souls, according to the latest ONS data, the number of people aged 16 to 24 who are unemployed is too high. The point is this. We should be investing in the skills of our own young people and our own workforce, and not simply relying on cheap labour from abroad.

The Labour Party has failed to wake up and engage in a sensible way. But my starter for six as set out above is not for the Labour Party, but for the Prime Minister. The direction of travel is clear: an open, tolerant and outward looking country, with a tough, fair and controlled immigration policy. A policy which is fair without fuelling fear; and a government conscious of the pressure on services, with a clear and stated aim of reducing immigration and acting fairly in the national interest.