24 April 2018 Insight

Immigration is about people, not numbers

The UK must learn from the Windrush scandal as it crafts its new, post-Brexit immigration system, says Carolyn Fairbairn

Once again, UK immigration policy is in the spotlight. Despite a lifetime’s contribution to Britain, people have been told they do not belong here. This is wrong. Ministers have admitted as much and are now committed to finding solutions.

But the painful story of the Windrush generation holds important lessons for the future. As the UK leaves the EU, a new immigration system is being crafted. It must not repeat old mistakes.

This crisis was caused by a policy based on numbers, not people — fixating on a target of reducing net immigration to 100,000 a year. This must change. For almost a decade, the message to officials has been to find a way to say “no”. Mistakes like Windrush became inevitable. This is not an argument against controlled immigration. The aim is right and supported by British businesses. But any system will fail if it is not anchored in the contribution people make to our society and economy.

Getting this right has never been more important. As the UK approaches the era-defining change of leaving the EU, the government has set out its vision for a successful post-Brexit Britain, one that maintains a “deep and special partnership” with our closest neighbours while trading with the rest of the globe. Yet this is only achievable if we are open, as well as controlled, in our approach to immigration. To address shortages, and to attract investment, we need to show that the UK is the best place to live, learn and do business.

If employers can't find the staff, they can't create jobs in their local communities. The economy and public services suffer.

Let’s remember why this matters. It is about our values as a country and about our standard of living. If employers can’t find the staff, they can’t create jobs in their local communities. The economy and public services suffer. Lower tax receipts mean less money for schools, roads and the NHS. We need an immigration system based on the contribution people make, not an arbitrary target. Here are some practical steps the government can take to move forward.

First, drop the net migration target. It is too blunt an instrument for a delicate task, and comes with huge economic cost.

Second, keep the system simple, and make it fast. I know of many businesses whose applications have been turned down, for the smallest of process reasons, after months of waiting.

Third, the replacement for free movement of people must, once we are out of the single market, reflect the depth of the partnership we seek with the EU. A preferential route for EU workers is vital. Copying and pasting the non-EU visa system would be a disaster — hitting smaller companies hardest.

The Government needs to be clear: those who help the UK become more prosperous will always be welcome

Fourth, more investment in our public services. People are concerned about immigration in part because our health and public infrastructure needs to keep pace. But taxing workers from overseas helps pay for public services. The Government needs to be clear: those who help the UK become more prosperous will always be welcome. Over several months we have seen skilled workers turned away because visa caps have been hit with no regard to their wider effects. Much of this is driven by a surge in demand from the NHS — a vital part of our national fabric where, ironically, the Windrush generation made some of its first and most valued contributions to Britain. It is hard to imagine another country where an acceptable consequence of an urgent need for doctors and nurses from overseas would be one where growing tech firms are told they can’t hire engineers. It makes no sense.

An obsession with an arbitrary number is very different from a rigorous and fair process that recognises people’s contribution. Public concerns about immigration are nuanced, and dissipate once people are reassured that workers come to the UK to fill skill gaps and labour needs. This distinction lies behind the angry public reaction to the Windrush cases. The UK now has the chance to create an immigration system that will support prosperity for generations to come. Let’s make sure we learn from these mistakes. 

This piece was first published in the Financial Times

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