Leading article

Migrant benefits

8 September 2016

1:00 PM

8 September 2016

1:00 PM

Calm is slowly returning to the debate about Britain and Europe. The shrillness of the referendum campaign, and the hysteria from people who ought to have known better, is giving way to an acceptance that the end is not nigh and that things could be as good, if not better, than before. The idea that the British public had somehow voted for a recession is being steadily abandoned. The next stage is to accept that Brexit was not a populist yawp about protecting our borders. It was not a demand to stop immigration, but to manage it better.

So when Theresa May rejected an Australian-style points-based immigration system this week, it did not mean that she had betrayed Brexit or shown her desire to water down the whole process. That was the suggestion of Nigel Farage, but the Australian system was at best an example of what countries do when they have the power to control their borders. There are other ways of doing that, as James Forsyth details in his piece this week. Mrs May has accepted the most important point: that migrants from the EU will in future have to come through the same controlled immigration system.

Migration from within the EU only became an issue in Britain in 2004 when eight relatively poor, former Soviet bloc countries joined the union. That led to an influx of Poles, who have turned out to be the best immigrants that any country could hope for. In the past few years, however, the number of eastern Europeans arriving has levelled off — and the surge in immigration has come from people fleeing Spain, France and Italy and the economic chaos of the eurozone. The negative effects on housing and the availability of public services have been enough to underline a belief that it was time for the process to come under some control.

But Euroscepticism in Britain began long before 2004. Had an in-out referendum been held in the early 1990s, at the time of the Maastrict Treaty, the result may well have been an even larger majority in favour of leaving than that which emerged in June. The main issue now, as then, is sovereignty. That was implicit in the slogan chosen by the official Leave campaign: ‘Take Control.’ That a majority of the public voted to remove Britain from the powers of the European Commission and European Parliament does not oblige Mrs May’s government to follow any particular policy on migration. It just means that in future Britain’s immigration policy will be decided by our own Parliament.

The debate can now start, and it would be one much improved if it were joined by those who had argued for Britain to stay in the EU. Surely, for example, both sides can agree that immediate assurances ought to be granted to EU nationals who are currently living in Britain? They were fully entitled to make the move here and have established careers and family lives in the belief that they would retain the right to live in Britain. It is wrong to put their residence here in doubt, and Theresa May should rule out any suggestion that their rights will be used as bargaining chips during Brexit negotiations.

A wise migration policy would go on to recognise that open labour markets are generally a good thing. They make it easier for British businesses to fill vacancies they would otherwise be unable to fill and attract entrepreneurs who will go on to set up businesses in Britain. Some of these future entrepreneurs begin their working lives in Britain doing fairly lowly jobs, and would therefore probably be excluded by a points-based migration system. This itself is a very good argument against adopting such a system. There are others, too. The Australian system, for example, is shamelessly ageist — it excludes applicants over the age of 50 and yet automatically gives half the required points to people in their twenties, regardless of how many or how few skills they have.

For all the good which comes of migration, a well-constructed policy would also recognise that immigration can sometimes overwhelm labour markets and public services. It needs to address the problem of migrants taking advantage of our benefits system — which is very generous by the standards of many EU states — and to tackle the issue of migrants with criminal convictions. Neither proved possible under the EU’s diktats on free movement.

There is no need for a British immigration policy to treat all EU citizens the same. The government could adopt a policy of completely free movement with prosperous western European countries but exert more control over migration from poorer eastern European states until such a time as their per capita income comes closer to Britain’s. Migration only tends to be a problem when it occurs between countries with a large disparity in average incomes.

These are some ideas at least. Others will have different suggestions. Remain voters who wish to speak up for mass migration have every right to present their case. But they should do it in the context of helping to develop a British policy on migration, not pretending that they can reverse the will of the people in wanting Britain to depart from the EU. They might even find, to their pleasant surprise, that the re-establishment of full British sovereignty makes it easier for their ideas to be heard.

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