“A change is going to come” was the repeated refrain of Theresa May’s speech to the Conservative conference in Birmingham.
The prime minister has often said that “Brexit means Brexit”. She opened the conference by setting out a plan for Britain to leave the European Union by the spring of 2019, with formal divorce negotiations commencing next March.
Home secretary Amber Rudd, the most pro-European member of former prime minister David Cameron’s cabinet, unveiled an immigration crackdown which generated much criticism, including from those who had been on the Leave side of the argument.
The headline proposal, to make firms report the proportion of foreign workers they employ, came under heavy fire. A clumsy Times front-page headline suggesting companies would produce “lists” of foreign workers, made the policy sound especially sinister.
The actual plan – reporting the proportion of migrant workers by firm – would be bureaucratic and unworkable. If foreign-born naturalised British citizens were included in the headcount, surely that would offend the British principle of equal citizenship? If they were excluded, would the figures be considered misleading?
Business groups challenged the idea of “naming and shaming” companies, as if hiring legal migrant workers was a badge of dishonour. Government departments – including the Home Office – revealed they did not hold such data on their own employees. Former UKIP party chair Suzanne Evans said it was “much more extreme” than anything her party would advocate. By last weekend, the proposal had been withdrawn.
So, too, had the idea floated by health secretary Jeremy Hunt that NHS doctors were welcome to stay until 2025, given skills shortages, but would be asked to leave after that. Again, the proposal fell apart under the slightest scrutiny – those who have been in the UK for five years have the right to apply for permanent residence.
Immigration did play an important role in the referendum debate – it was the second biggest concern for Leave voters after sovereignty and control. The referendum was a vote of no confidence in how governments have handled immigration over the last 15 years.
But that does not mean most people want a hard crackdown on immigration and immigrants. British Future’s research shows the public have moderate and nuanced views on both sides of the referendum divide. Eighty-four per cent believe the 3.5 million Europeans who have made their homes in Britain must be able to carry on living and working here – with the government belatedly moving towards offering that guarantee. Two-thirds would like to see reductions to unskilled migration, but that falls to just 10 per cent who want less skilled migration. Cutting immigration of doctors and nurses, scientists and researchers is opposed by over 85 per cent of people.
Only one in four want to reduce the number of migrants who come to work in care homes. Nearly half would reduce the number of construction workers, though communities secretary Sajid Javid has stressed that migrant labour will be needed to ensure his house-building drive can happen. It reflects the need for joined-up policies to manage the pressures of migration without cutting out the skills we need.
Student migration, too, is broadly popular. Most people don’t think students who come to study and then leave after their course is completed should be mixed up in the immigration figures at all. Only 22 per cent want to cut the student numbers; over three-quarters don’t.
The idea that elite universities like Oxford and Cambridge should carry on gaining from international students, while universities in the north, Midlands and southwest are denied the benefits that fee-paying overseas students bring, would surely stand a key lesson of the referendum on its head. If too few people feel they share in the benefits of growth and globalisation, the answer is to spread the gains more broadly, not narrow them further.
The noisy shouting match showed the dangers of trying to reform immigration by party conference headlines. Floating eye-catching initiatives before ditching them as unworkable hardly builds trust that government knows what it is doing. Instead, it sends a damaging message abroad that Brexit Britain may be more closed than open. Genuine public concerns about the scale and pace of change, and getting integration right, are not addressed by slashing flows of skilled and student migration that the public is not worried about.
There will need to be changes to immigration policy after the referendum. A Comprehensive Immigration Review which, for the first time, looked at the overall picture, would offer a strong foundation. Engaging the public about what they actually want, as part of that review, would help the government strike a more sensible balance to manage the pressures of immigration.
These are the kinds of changes that are needed in our immigration policy. The ‘reset moment’ of the referendum offers an opportunity to make them – it is an opportunity this conference should have seized.
Sunder Katwala is director of British Future