Devolve immigration policy to the nations and regions to answer the demands of Brexit

This piece by Atul Hatwal is an updated version of his chapter in the Compass report, Causes and Cures of Brexit

“It’s like this mad riddle.” Thus spake Danny Dyer, the sage of Brexit. Our modern day Zarathustra wasn’t wrong and nowhere are the contradictions thrown up by Brexit more evident than on immigration.

How to ‘take back control’ of migration while not cutting numbers so precipitately that skills gaps cripple public services and drive businesses to the wall? Or that the EU’s red line on freedom of movement is so egregiously breached that the broader Brexit deal is derailed?

At the heart of the riddle is an impossible question on the right number of migrants to be allowed into the UK.

The most significant area of migration is people coming to the UK to work (as opposed to study, family reunion or asylum) and on this, whether Tory or Labour, the government has a choice of two policy options, both a wrong answer.

Option A: Set a numbers target that is so low as to be either unattainable or disastrous for the economy. The past eight years have tested this approach to the point of political destruction. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario more corrosive to trust in politicians on migration than the way the government has stuck to its target of cutting migration to the tens of thousands, while continually missing it by huge margins. It raises migration as an issue and then casts the government as incompetents or liars, not prepared to do what’s required.

Option B: Set a target high enough not to buckle public services or hit economic growth but one that then opens the government to charges of allowing uncontrolled immigration.

Labour’s proposals for an integrated work visa, where the current tiering system with its caps is scrapped, suggest the party is headed towards Option B.

The detail is yet to be fleshed out but this represents a positive move from Labour. However, it’s one that will not be without cost.

It’s inevitable the Conservatives would use this as a dividing line in any election and in the event of a narrow Labour election victory, there is a question as to whether this policy could be carried through the Commons given a significant minority of Labour MPs would likely rebel on the basis that this would not, in their view, honour the Referendum result.

Over the past few months, there’s been some recourse on all sides to try to focus on skilled migration while advocating for restrictions on low skilled migration, as an alternative approach. But this just leads back to the same underlying choices.

The division between what’s considered high and low skill in Britain’s current non-EU immigration system is based on salary. High skill equates to £30,000 or above. According to this exceptionally crude dividing line, roughly 75% of the UK workforce is categorised as low skill and that includes nurses, teachers and scientists.

Sticking to the current definition of skills leads to option A. Setting a target based on a more realistic view of what constitutes high, medium and low skills leads back to option B.

There’s seemingly no escape from the numbers game.

But as with most riddles, the path to the answer lies in changing one’s perspective.

Control has always been viewed through the prism of central government. Yet control doesn’t have to be centralised. What if the balance between central and regional control was shifted decisively in favour of the latter?

English city regions, England’s Combined Authorities, regional government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – this tier of devolved governance could take a leading role in setting the level of migrant labour required for their region, based on consultation with businesses & unions and local economic analysis. Regional work permits would then be issued in line with these priorities.

The Referendum result revealed a deeply divided nation and the answer is surely not to impose a one-size fits all solution for the country on an issue such as migration where there are such different views in different regions. Devolving decision-making on migration to a regional level would localise control over numbers, enabling the flexibility for contrasting priorities across Britain to be accommodated.

Such a shift would also connect the discussion on migration with the debate about jobs and growth in the region. Regional politicians would be accountable for making the case for what was needed in their part of the country and the costs to local jobs and the economy if the need wasn’t met.

This matters because of the duality in the way that the public views immigration, between its importance as a national issue and its practical relevance to their lives.

YouGov’s polling illuminates this dichotomy.

At the point when public concern about immigration as a national issue was at its zenith in September 2015, YouGov’s national tracker polling registered 71% as saying that it was the most important issue facing the country – the highest ever recorded.

Yet the same poll found that only 24% said it was the most important issue for their family.

Crudely put, the overwhelming majority of the British public think that immigration might not be a major issue in their lives, but it looks like a big problem elsewhere and so something must be done.

Regionalising migration policy would mean the public’s choice, as expressed at the regional ballot box, would be focused on their region, not some notional view of the national situation. The decision would be much more closely aligned with their personal priorities.

It would further be a decision made in the context of a very different type of debate on migration to the one we currently have to endure.

Regional leadership on migration would mean less of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage and more of Sadiq Khan, Nicola Sturgeon, Marvin Rees, Steve Rotheram and Andy Street.

Less of the Sun and Daily Mail, more of the Yorkshire Post and Birmingham Evening Mail.

A much bigger role for regional employers and regional union leadership with direct ties to the people impacted by decisions.

Politically, the move to a regional policy would finally enable national government to dispense with the destructive numbers target in as painless a manner as possible.

The national debate where the Johnsons, Goves and Farages are active would be reframed around the process of regional democratic control rather than the current obsession with numbers.

Those that did argue for a top-down target set by central government would be denying regional accountability.

The power of the argument in favour of an EU referendum in the 2010-15 parliament was that to oppose it entailed denying people their say. It’s part of the reason why the campaign for a second Referendum is gaining traction.

The same holds for devolving policy on migration numbers to regional governance that is democratically accountable to its voters. It is much harder for far right agitators to talk about an establishment betrayal or lack of public control over migration in this context.

At the same time, in practice, if this policy was implemented, access to the UK labour market for EU citizens would likely not be hugely impacted given the high level of overlap between areas where the local economy has skills gaps that need migrants and positivity on migration. London is the obvious example where over 40% of the UK’s migrants live.

It wouldn’t be the same as freedom of movement but for the EU, the reality would more likely be within the realms of the negotiable and palatable for a more constructive overall Brexit deal, than any other option.

And in terms of building a majority in the House of Commons to pass legislation, the expansion of powers for regional governance would be potentially attractive to regional parties such as the SNP as well as aligning with the devolution grain of Labour party policy.

From the perspective of a progressive and a democrat, there is much to recommend the devolution of migration policy to regional governance. The argument advanced most persistently, against it is about delivery – how would it work? What happens if a migrant arrives in one region and then moves to another?

To an extent this is a variant of the argument used against devolving any power from central to regional government. But in the case of migration there is a precedent from Britain’s recent past that shows the path to implementation.

The practicality of delivery hinges on the effectiveness of work permits. The UK used work permits for non-EU migration from 1973 to 2006 administered by Work Permits UK, a government agency based in Sheffield. The system was employer-led, with employers making applications for permits assessed by government agency case-workers.

The typical turnaround for Work Permits UK was 4-6 days with 24hr turnaround for urgent cases. In comparison, turnaround for work permit applications to the United States was 25 days.

A similar approach could be readopted to manage regional migration – there is the institutional knowledge already within the civil service and past practice suggests this is well within the bounds of the possible without the need for expensive new IT systems or organisational structures.

Under this regime, where migrants wanted to move between regions, they would need a new permit in the same way that previous generations of migrants needed a new permit when they wanted to change employer.

A greater challenge would be in countering abuse of the system and unregistered working but the obvious answer is to devolve responsibility for enforcing labour market regulation to regional governance.

Currently it is dispersed across a range of quangos such as HMRC and the floridly titled Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority. Devolving responsibility and funds to the regional level would improve accountability and focus to ensure the rules of the new system were uniformly upheld with the minimum wage and labour standards properly policed.

Regionalising migration policy offers a singular opportunity to solve the Brexit riddle and take migration, with all of the poisonous debate that surrounds it, permanently off the table as a national issue. This wouldn’t just be as a political mechanic, but as part of a change that put brought power nearer to voters and improved accountability.

All that’s needed is for progressive politicians to have the courage to think beyond the bounds of Westminster and Whitehall.

Atul Hatwal is Director of the Migration Matters Trust and editor of Uncut

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7 Responses to “Devolve immigration policy to the nations and regions to answer the demands of Brexit”

  1. John P Reid says:

    while i’m all for devolution, not sure what the regions and Nations are

    Also In London we have Class Cleansing AKA Working class flight,it’s economic migration

    as people in Social housing who aren’t in Job in Inner London are moved to Kent and Essex,making it hard for their children who can’t afford baby sitters to get their Kids to work as they can’t get their parents travel 100 miles to baby sit

    if the Assumption that Ecenomic Migrants will come to the cities do the jobs on the cheap and wont want to get work out side the Cities they’re based in that’s silly I know of EU migrants who went to Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire for work

    this is a clear example of labour becoming a Metropolitan party and once labour lose Wales and Bristol, good luck ever winning a election again

    as for Boris didn’t he beat Ken twice?

  2. Anne says:

    Good article – thinking of solutions to immigration, which, I believe, was one of the reasons some voted for Brexit- immigrants undercutting wages etc. No system will be 100 per cent problem free, but this approach does seem to even immigration out – as the majority of immigrants do go to the London area, although they gravitate to areas where employment is. The SNP say they want more immigrants. Having region migration seems a way forward. Atul, you did miss out Andy Burnham for Manchester.

  3. Tafia says:

    So if for instance Scotland grants immigration to someone who wouldn’t have been granted it in Wales, how exactly is that enforced?

    Or if London grants someone, how exactly does Manchester police it?

    Because it’s not just about work, it’s about access to in and out of work benefits, access to local services such as GPs, NHS hospitals, schools etc etc, access to social housing, access to private rented, access to mortgages etc etc.

    You don’t know. Which means this is the usual Atul bag of bollocks.

  4. John P Reid says:

    If someone, came to the Home Counties where it costs £1.50 a hour, to park in a hospital car park

    and the Greater London assembly subsidized parking charges to be a pound a hour,and the immigrant, parked in a Hospital in London would they be arrested as they’d got something on the cheap in a area they should use services in?

  5. anon says:

    Where to begin with this piece:

    More of the England-dividing policy pursued by John Prescott’’s imposed EU ‘Regional Assembly’ ambitions. A plan that, when put to REAL people was heavily rejected.

    An option so readily overlooked by Labour – when it comes to picking our fruit – is a resurrection of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) I worked on several farms as a young lad, and I worked alongside European youngsters who were employed on a seasonal basis (I’m afraid that I can’t get too exercised about people being served their organic coffee at Pret)

    Mr Hatwal then goes on to discuss the merits of a “one-size fits all” – completely ignoring the fact that rural Britain has a totally different view of life than the overcrowded and crime-ridden cesspits that our big cities have become. Large cities given ‘regional’ powers will simply turn the green and crime free areas of Britain into copies of themselves. No thanks!

    And why is Mr Hatwal so hell-bent on overcrowding these islands; is he representative of the people who already live here? Does he care about the little guy and their chances in life? Is he concerned about their safety and freedom from crime? Does he give a toss about our environment or quality of life?

    Mr Hatwal’s plans are nothing but a way of undermining and dividing the English people by arming their regional Common Purpose cronies in the cities with the means to overrule those who don’t share their vision.

    Please don’t pretend to be concerned about our democracy; your ambitions are the exact opposite.

  6. John P Reid says:

    For my generation Neil Kinnock was our political hero on the left (I’m 45) trouble was I didn’t think he actually believed in what he was saying in 1992 but those work, helped labour win in 97′ ironically he probably believes more in the 92 manifesto now, and just pretended he was pro the EEC, not reversing trade union laws and wanting Nucleur weapons, policies he’d been against in 87 and 83 and the 70’s

    In fairness Thatcher didn’t believe in selling council homes cheap as rhe lower middle class with mortgages didn’t get anything out of it, Wilson didn’t believe in the 74 manifesto, Blair in Develution, or Heath in the tough on immigration Seldson man 1970 manifesto

    So this brings me to a Corbyn, I just can’t believe so many corbynistas can still convince themselves he’s against brexit, is he s of wrroed that momentum will get the hump that he’s pro brexit he’s pretending he’s not
    Whatever one says about Corbyn ,he never copmoromised his opinions to try to get on the front bench , from Blair to Burnham others just went auth the parties policy while junior (shadow) ministers
    Trouble is that Cobynistas dislike of Brexit is based on them being middle class and the fact they want to override what the working class voted for will lose labour votes, but then so many corbynistas aren’t the sort to go knock on doors in council estates to canvass ,they dint understand that their contempt for the working class won’t be met with the working class saying ” oh political elite, you’ve called me a thick racist, I now realize I was wrong to vote leave as ,because you think you’re a intellectual, because you’ve been to conference and drink French wine, it’s made me realize I should do what you say as you’re smarter than me “

  7. Dave Roberts says:

    I think that it’s always important to realise that the Atul Hatwal’s of this world have a profile to consider. It’s necessary for them to have an up to date portfolio of articles preferably on controversial subjects so that they get to be in The Guardian and on Question Time.

    This article has been taken apart already but let me stick my four penny worth in. As with the calls for a new Brexit referendum there would have to be legislation. This would have to break up the UK into new legislative areas which would require several acts of Parliament which isn’t going to happen, as everyone knows, so this article is nonsense.

    The whole idea of this country running out of workers in this or that sector is also nonsense. We have had immigrant workers in this country long before EU membership and we’ll have them long after we have left.

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