Pro-Leave proposals on immigration risk creating large-scale irregular migration

One of the more curious features of the EU referendum campaign is how the Leave campaign has positioned itself on immigration. The attempt to mobilise support for Brexit by tapping – and revving up – fears about immigration has been widely discussed. But more intriguing are the various attempts by pro-Leavers to sketch out a post-Brexit immigration policy. And the ideas here have been surprisingly progressive; but, as I shall suggest, likely to yield a range of inadvertent effects. Let’s deal with each in turn.

1. First the Leave campaign launched a proposal for a post-Brexit ‘Australian-style’ points system. This was touted as an alternative to the currently ‘uncontrolled’ EU immigration. The idea is that a future UK government could choose exactly which (high-skilled, presumably) immigrants to admit. It was an odd suggestion, given that we already do have a points system in the UK: Tier 1 of the current system allows for the recruitment of those with ‘exceptional talent’, who can tot up enough points on various criteria. While Tier 1 has been capped by the current government at 1,000, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be extended, and tweaked to prioritise particular sorts of skills or characteristics considered economically desirable.

One of the reasons Tier 1 hasn’t been more widely used (many more immigrants are allowed through Tier 2) is its focus on the characteristics of migrants, rather than labour market needs. By selecting on the basis of the attributes of incomers – their skills, language ability, age, and so on – points-based systems risk admitting people who don’t match existing vacancies, or who end up taking on jobs below their skills level. On a points-based system, you can control who comes in, but not what jobs they do. This is partly why Tier 2 has been seen as more effective, its selection criteria based on employer needs and entry tied to specific jobs.

The idea of a points-based system targeted exclusively at high-skilled migrants also overlooks the problem of shortages in lower-skilled occupations. If the UK were to cut off its supply of EU nationals – 57% of whom already have a job before they arrive in the UK – there would be serious gaps in labour supply. And these are likely to be filled by irregular labour.

2. The second rather counter-intuitive proposal came on Monday this week, in the form of Michael Gove’s suggestion that Scotland adopt its own bespoke points-based system. Scotland, so the plan went, would be able to adjust the points required depending on its particular needs – including lowering the overall threshold, in order to increase immigration to Scotland.

This idea has been doing the rounds for several years, and advocated by many in the SNP and Lib Dems – but has been roundly rejected by the Home Office. Clearly, Theresa May is averse to any reform that might further undermine the net migration target by raising overall numbers of migrants. Arguably more seriously, separate regional points-based systems suffer from a problem of ‘retention’. Immigrants may be required to stay in the recruiting region for a certain period of time. But once that period has expired and they have accrued longer-term residency rights, it is problematic to deny them the possibility of moving on to another locale. This has been a problem with Quebec’s points-based scheme, which has seen a high proportion of its immigrants move on to other areas of Canada once they have the opportunity.

3. The third surprise from Leave campaigners comes in the form of today’s suggestion by Boris Johnson that a post-Brexit government introduce an amnesty for irregular migrants. The idea is that those who have been resident on an irregular basis for 12 years or more be entitled to regularise their status. The number standing to benefit from such an initiative is likely to be considerable. Though it is notoriously difficult to estimate the scale of the undocumented population, estimates in 2005 and 2007 put the total at around 600,000.

Again, this proposal can be interpreted as a progressive move, and one that is presumably designed to assuage criticisms that the Leave campaign is anti-immigrant. Amnesties for those without legal status are a humane and effective way of dealing with irregular migration. But as many southern European countries have found, regular, publicised amnesties can act as a draw to would-be immigrants. Arguably the best way of dealing with this is to ensure regularisation by stealth – granting amnesties to those who have built a life in the UK, but through less high profile programmes. So the trick is to ensure a route to regular status, but without overly publicising it.

But the main problem with this proposal is that combining high profile amnesties with a restriction of low-skilled immigration is a sure-fire path to wide-scale irregular migration. Look at the case of Italy. Years of restrictive immigration policies, combined with widespread demand for low-skilled labour, and regular amnesties for undocumented migrants, has contributed to a huge irregular population. There are strong incentives to non-EU nationals to enter Italy on an irregular basis or overstay their visa, find work on the informal labour market in Italy’s prosperous northern regions, and then wait for an opportunity to regularise their status. Giuseppe Sciortino has written eloquently on the topic.

As things stand, EU migration to the UK may not be ‘controlled’ as perfectly as many might like. But it is far more likely to be on the books, with employees paying taxes and subject to the same rights and conditions as British workers. Importantly, it is also flexible, allowing workers to move to where the jobs are, and to come and go as job opportunities evolve. An attempt to cut off this supply and recruit only high-skilled labour via a points system is likely to encourage increased irregular migration. Couple that with high profile amnesties, and a potential ‘back door’ into the UK via the Republic of Ireland and a more generous Scottish points system, and there you have it: a perfect recipe for Italian-style chronic and large-scale irregular migration.


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