Assessing proposals for post-Brexit immigration policy: devolution or a tiered approach?

It’s been a busy few days for immigration policy wonks. On Thursday 5th, the all-party parliamentary group on social integration, headed by Chuka Umunna, proposed a new approach to immigration policy, including proposals for more robust measures on integration and for the devolution of immigration policy-making to sub-national regions. And on Saturday, Labour MPs Stephen Kinnock and Emma Reynolds put forward a plan for a post-Brexit immigration policy based on preferential treatment for EU nationals.

While these contributions proposed different approaches, they were based on similar premises, namely:

  1. That the British public has articulated a clear preference for more robust control of immigration; and that political parties need to recognise and respond to this desire, or risk further erosion of trust and a serious democratic deficit.
  2. That labour migration brings important economic and social benefits, and many sections of the British economy are dependent on migrant labour. Thus a radical restriction of current flows would be neither economically desirable, nor feasible.

Taken together, these two considerations imply a serious tension between popular preferences for restriction, and the economic case for a more liberal approach. In previous blogs, I have shown how this is a classic dilemma for liberal democratic welfare states. So how do the recent proposals seek to resolve the tension?

Both of the proposed approaches involve setting up channels to sustain current inflows of EU immigration, but in a way designed to reassure voters that the UK does effectively control immigration. Indeed, the real challenge lies in this second aspect of the proposals: how far they can convince voters that a post-Brexit Britain immigration policy is meeting public concerns about the scale and impacts of immigration.

The all-party group on social integration suggests two main ways of reassuring the public that the government is serious about controlling immigration. (1) First, the proposal revives a well-established ‘dualist’ approach in post-war UK immigration policy: restricting new entry, whilst promoting the rights and integration of those immigrants already here. The proposals of the all-party group reinvigorate the focus on integration, which has effectively been sidelined by a government keen to encourage return migration in order to meet its net migration target. The paper proposes financial support for local communities and new policies to promote integration as well as introducing more robust language requirements. This is certainly welcome, and could potentially go some way to alleviating local grievances and tensions, at least in the medium to long-term (although injecting resources into integration always runs the risk of exacerbating local grievances about immigrants are receiving preferential treatment).

(2) Second, the proposal seeks to address the tension between public concerns and economic considerations through a differentiated regional approach. It suggests that the devolved administrations and city-regions be given more autonomy in setting thresholds and selecting which types of labour migrants to admit. The rationale for this is that different regions in the UK may have distinct preferences and needs – for example as a function of varying demographic profiles, economic sectors, or public attitudes. The report mentions the Canadian regional points-based system as a possible template for this, but suggests the need for further discussion of the different options.

Such a devolved approach could in principle cater for differential economic and demographic conditions. It is less obvious how far it would address public concerns about control. One key aspect here is the question of retention. Regional systems are unable to limit the onward movement of those granted permanent residence or citizenship (it would be difficult to limit free movement once someone has accrued extended UK residency rights). This has been a feature of the Canadian and Australian regional systems, where studies have shown that there is often substantial onward movement once people are entitled to relocate. Another concern is that a differentiated regional approach may not lead to a reduction in aggregate net migration figures. Indeed, such an approach would need to be accompanied by much more nuanced, regional data on net migration than are currently available. (Or, of course, scrapping the net migration figure entirely…)

On a more symbolic level, it is difficult to see how a UK government could claim to be asserting control while devolving decision-making to regions and cities (possibly run by left-wing administrations!).

There are also questions about how far regions can act as legitimate decision-making units on an issue as salient as immigration. The devolved administrations represent more mature polities, in which many institutions and policies are already autonomous, and the public is accustomed to its (regional) political parties articulating distinct claims and representing the distinct preferences of that geographical unit. This is less clearly the case for the ‘city areas’ identified in the paper (although London may be an exception). Given the asymmetrical nature of federalism in the UK, it’s unclear how a separate regional approach to immigration would be legitimate for most sub-national areas. Indeed, any regional deviation from the (more restrictive) UK-level ‘default’ would need to be carefully deliberated and justified at regional level, in order to avoid the sort of elitist, economically driven policy that is now perceived to have been so problematic at UK level over the past decade. So while this devolved approach may conceivably work for a region like Scotland (and has been mooted here for a decade or more), it’s less clear how it could offer a more general fix across the UK.

So what of the second proposal from Kinnock and Reynolds? Their favoured approach is to address public concerns about immigration control through another form of disaggregation: not differentiating between regions, but between skills levels. They suggest granting preferential treatment to EU nationals, but separating these into two distinct ‘tiers’ (not to be confused with the current 5-tier immigration system). The proposed tier 1 would cover high skilled professions (they name doctors, engineers and teachers as examples). EU nationals with the relevant skills, qualifications, and with a job offer, would be allowed to work in the UK in these occupations. Tier 2 comprises semi and low-skilled workers who would be admitted in accordance with quotas set by the government and social partners, in an arrangement reminiscent of post-war European guest-worker systems.

This approach makes a nod to survey findings that British voters are more accepting of the economic case for high skilled workers than they are for low-skilled. Admitting high skilled professionals is likely to be more politically palatable. But the approach also preserves channels for low-skilled employment which, after all, comprises the bulk of EU immigration. (Even though EU nationals in the UK are on average better qualified than UK ones, many end up taking on less skilled jobs.) Importantly, the authors want to ensure these quotas are not so generous as to displace indigenous workers, or to disincentivise investment in training, or restructuring sectors with low productivity.

Kinnock and Reynolds further suggest that this approach would provide a good basis for negotiating more extended access to the single market – it offers a ‘win-win’ for the UK and EU. Here I am less convinced. If this 2-tier system isn’t a case of the ‘cherry-picking’ so castigated by EU leaders, I don’t know what is. It seems unlikely that the EU would accept this package as remotely equivalent to sustaining rights of free movement. The notion that the stay of highly skilled EU nationals would be permitted only for specified occupations and contingent on a ‘confirmed’ job offer implies a rather restrictive regime – certainly compared to current free movement provisions, and even in comparison to typical points-based systems, under which individuals can enter and seek work based on their occupational qualifications or human capital. It is even less appealing for low-skilled workers, who enter under a quota scheme and are presumably locked into lower-skilled jobs with limited possibilities of mobility.

However, leaving aside the question of how it would play in Brexit negotiations, this second approach may be more promising in terms of winning public support. Basing labour migration policy on hard-nosed economic arguments about skills or occupational shortages may well play better with the public, offering a clear narrative about the rationale for admission. And the onus on selecting which sectors and occupations need immigrant labour would help signal that the government is in control.

Such an occupational/sectoral approach could incorporate a regional dimension – but indirectly, through the sectors it prioritises. It could include more extensive regional lists to reflect distinct labour needs in different parts of the country. And, as suggested in the report, it could revive something like the Fresh Talent initiative that would allow graduates of UK universities to work in the UK once their studies are finished – an approach that again can work well for regions and cities hosting large numbers of students.

Indeed, I suspect this sort of approach may well emerge as the preferred framework for post-Brexit immigration policy: a system that gives preferential treatment to EU nationals in a way that largely preserves current flows; while allowing more leverage in identifying sectors or occupations in need of labour. Whether or not it constitutes much of a bargaining chip in Brexit negotiations is more doubtful. But such preferential treatment could be assist the conclusion of bilateral arrangements with other EU member states – for example ensuring skilled UK nationals can also work in Munich, or that UK pensioners can still spend their retirement years in the Costa del Sol.

In short, both reports contain very useful ideas. We need a revived focus on integration and enhanced support for local areas. We should further explore options for devolved arrangements – although I am doubtful how far these would be politically viable beyond the case of Scotland. And we need to consider how best to sustain current EU mobility in a way that reassures the public that the UK is managing immigration. It won’t be enough to keep us in the single market. But the alternative would be an unmanaged approach that fails to address local pressures and integration challenges, and that probably ends up admitting high numbers of immigrants without a clear narrative about choice and control. A bit like the current approach, then, but with far higher levels of disaffection on the part of disillusioned Brexit voters.

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