Brexit: An opportunity to get immigration policy right

Let’s get one thing straight up front: Conservatives for Liberty is pro-immigration.

We’re not pro any and all immigration with no management at all, and certainly not pro EU free movement of people, but do we generally think that immigration is a positive thing.

Some industries in the UK simply cannot survive without immigration: mostly specialist skilled areas we don’t produce many workers in like electrical engineering, skilled professions in high demand like doctors, and undesirable labour intensive work like fruit picking. Immigration helps us to supply the manpower needed in these industries, and also helps balance out the costs of our ageing population.

With employment levels consistently high, we are approaching a time where economic growth will be seriously held back by not having enough people to work.

It’s not just an economic argument. The team at Conservatives for Liberty recognises the cultural good that so often comes with immigration. The most obvious cultural value that’s brought to us through immigration is in food. But we also see it in music and the arts, and all kinds of other areas.

Brexit offers us an opportunity that we have not had for a very long time: the opportunity to design a new immigration system that can be applied equally to everyone, regardless of their nationality. This is one of the reasons Conservatives for Liberty was such an ardent supporter of Brexit in the referendum campaign.

So what does our ideal immigration system look like?

Do we want a free for all? No.

The first thing we want is proper border controls, not just as a counting function, but so that we know who is coming and going. We need to know that people are who they say they are, that they meet the criteria set out below, and that they are safe to have in this country.

Our principle for controlling immigration is simple: if you can support yourself, you can come here. In order to assess whether people can support themselves, we have three criteria and every economic migrant must meet at least one:

  • Have a job to come to, not just an offer or a hope, but signed employment contracts.
  • Be a skilled worker in a field the UK is seriously lacking (this list would look similar to the Tier 2 Shortage Occupation List).
  • Be able to financially support themselves through other means, e.g. with private wealth.

In all cases immigrants would not have access to state benefits or the NHS, and would be required to buy private health insurance.

Under our system we would not have caps or targets for immigration – we think that they are a nonsense. Caps are a nonsense because government is incapable of accurately predicting how many migrants are actually needed. The best known example of this failure has been the recent rejection of migrant doctors, to which the government has responded by removing caps on doctors and nurses. But there are hundreds – perhaps thousands – of cases where UK businesses are badly affected by difficulties in getting the right staff, exacerbated by immigration caps; they’re just not as interesting to the media as the NHS.

There are three further planks to our ideal immigration policy.

First, people with criminal records are not allowed in, and people who commit crimes whilst in the UK are deported. We think that migrating to another country is a privilege, not a right, and that privilege should be lost with bad behaviour.

Second, families can come here too, but the definition of a family connection will be limited to spouses and children under the age of 18. For their family to join them, the person (or the married couple’s income taken together) meeting one of the three immigration criteria must be able to support them.

Third, in order to get the full benefits of being in the UK, including unemployment benefits, state pension, and access to the NHS, migrants must go through the process to become citizens. We envisage this continuing much as it is, with residency requirements, language tests, and the Life in the UK test.

You’ll notice that I haven’t talked about asylum and refugees in this article – and that’s deliberate because it’s an entirely different thing. It is broadly covered by international law, with humanitarian responsibilities. That’s not to say we wholeheartedly support current arrangements for refugees and asylum seekers – it’s a topic for another day.

But what about public opinion?

Time and again we’re told that the average man on the street is anti-immigration. That the reason the UK voted to the leave the EU is because we’re a nation of xenophobes. But I don’t think either of those things are true.

Yes, people are fed up with seeing immigrants who claim benefits (even though this is a minority of immigrants), they’re fed up of seeing immigrants commit crimes and then getting to stay here, and they’re fed up of the sense that the government hasn’t gripped this issue despite decades of outcry.

The solution to these gripes is not an unworkable, unachievable, economically damaging cap on immigration. It isn’t continuing free movement from the EU – with all that entails including entitlement to state benefits – whilst clamping down on immigration from non-EU countries in a way that looks, frankly, pretty racist.

If we keep track of who is here, deport anyone criminal, and make it impossible for immigrants to abuse benefits, I suspect people will be a whole lot less bothered about immigration – and they might even start to see the positives as we do.