Don Flynn finds the Johnson government sending mixed messages
The old debate about immigration, largely pushed into the background after the 2016 referendum vote, is set to return to the front pages as the Johnson government works out its line on the issue.
For the past three years there has been a sense that UK voters have been on a learning curve about the issue since the majority win for leaving the EU. Old worries about migration driving down wages and crowding public services have been displaced by concern over who will do the essential work – from nursing through to bringing in the crops – once the migrant workers stop coming.
At the policy level the discussion has veered away from traditional concern about the ‘swamping’ effect of large numbers and instead centred on the problem of making sure that the newcomers were shifted up a few grades in terms of education and skills than those admitted under the EU’s free movement rules. There was no longer the great anxiety about a population of 70 million living on the British island, so long as they were all properly qualified.
Signs of this approach came from the May government’s prompt acceptance of the report of the Migration Advisory Committee in the autumn of last year, which set out recommendations on how the UK should run a migration policy to meet the needs of the UK economy after Brexit. Amongst the detail of its proposals was a lowering of the baseline educational qualification required from newcomers from degree level to the equivalent of A-level standard. It also recommended keeping the annual salary level for the jobs open to migrants unchanged at £30,000.
The question now, with Boris Johnson at the helm, is whether things are going to change from this position. As ever with the Bullingdon Club blusterer, mixed messages abound. Soon after getting the keys for No 10 he resurrected an idea from his days as London Mayor for the regularisation of people who had overstayed their leave to remain, providing they had at least 14 years’ residence and were otherwise of good character. The old story about him having a Turkish great-grandfather was given another airing though, perhaps for the purpose of diluting the unfavourable reminders of the casual racism scattered across his journalism and off-the-cuff remarks over the years.
At the level of cabinet and ministerial appointments the messages are mixed. Right wing hardliner Priti Patel is nominally in charge of immigration policy from her position as Home secretary, but her harsh stance on law-and-order issues might not be the complete guide to her views on immigration. She was certainly a leading light in the immigrant-bashing Vote Leave campaign, but a in a more recent article penned in 2018, she argued that the UK recognised the “immense benefits” immigration brings to the economy and society. She then went on to argue for a “cap” and an “end to people being able to come into Britain with no job or on low wages”. Ominously for immigrants of more humble status, she is also of the view that “billions of pounds” could be saved by axing “handouts to recent migrants”.
Johnson’s views on the matter will be tugged backwards and forwards between his desire to keep the a highly-mistrustful business community onside by offering them visa channels for jobs which cannot be easily filled from the domestic labour market, and appeasing old-fashioned immigrant bashing which is still prevalent among the Brexit-at-any-price members of the Conservative party. An early manifestation of this has been a report coming out of Ian Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice which calls for a minimum salary requirement for new migrant workers entering the UK to be set at £37,500.
The CSJ report argues that earnings at this level mark the boundary between skilled and unskilled jobs. More knowledgeable authorities on labour market conditions are quick to dismiss a rigid rule that links skill to wage levels, particularly when issues like gender and age are taken into account. An immigration policy of this sort will be in danger of missing out on a younger and more diverse talent pool in order to offer a later career option to middle-aged, mostly male professionals.
There are no easy compromises to be struck between the contending parties. Already Johnson’s promise to scrap the current cap on the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa category has been rubbished by experts from the industries which aim to recruit these ‘brightest and best’ candidates. The forces which have been shaping immigration policies for the past 20 years – migrant-hungry employers versus visceral anti-immigrant ideologues – are still firing shots across the ramparts. Mr Johnson and his cabinet are set to suffer the sort of discomfort over the issue as felt by all their most recent predecessors.
Limbo-land beckons with border chaos and close scrutiny
Keeping pace with fast-moving developments in the field of Brexit policies is bound to be a challenge for contributors to a bi-monthly journal. Since writing the above piece news has been breaking about a plan by the Home Office to curtail all the rights and freedoms associated with EU freedom of movement from 1 November in the event that the UK leaves with no deal.
Under suspicion that the threat might be part of the government’s attempt to force the EU back to the negotiating table, the mere fact that it is being issued reveals a lot about the extreme policy action that the UK authorities are prepared to consider.
With no deal looking increasingly likely, the very real prospect of a policy which would subject all EU citizens to immigration policies which haven’t yet been written is deeply alarming. It would require the tens of thousands of citizens of other member states who cross UK borders on a daily basis to be subject to detailed examination on the purpose of their visit, currently the lot of nationals of non-member countries. At the very least this will lead to chaos at airports, ferry crossings and the Eurostar terminals where EU nationals are presently waved through.
Even more ominously, the estimated four million EU citizens who are now resident in the UK will find their biggest fears about their status in their adopted home country being realised. Until regulations are produced that cover their circumstances, they will find themselves in a limbo-land where rights to work, rent accommodation, drive vehicles, receive NHS treatment and register children at schools are all absent.
Can the government bring in regulations before the end of October that will re-establish a basis in law for the rights which are in danger of being removed? The omens do not look good. An immigration bill designed to do some of this work has been stalled in Parliament throughout this year because of the absence of an assured government majority for its proposals. Johnson’s even smaller majority, still dependent on the support of his Ulster Unionist allies, stands no chance of getting the measure through on time for the October deadline.
Home secretary Priti Patel is reported to believe that she can use so-called secondary legislative procedures to get some framework for the regulation of EU nationals to operate if the cliff edge is reached. Constitutional lawyers will be scrambling to contest this belief. The most likely outcome is that MPs will be forcing Patel to bring her proposals to the Commons for an examination which will prove excoriating. If she is defeated on this point the country seems set fair for even more chaos at its border come 1st November.