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The Observer view on the immigration white paper

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Author: Observer editorial

In just over a decade, immigration policy has undergone an extraordinary transition, from something of a political afterthought to the key driver of Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world. Since 2016, the prime minister has elevated ending free movement above all other priorities, a self-imposed red line that has determined the course of her Brexit negotiations. It has resulted in a disastrous withdrawal agreement that would incur huge economic costs while reducing Britain to the status of rule-taker.

Anyone watching this unfold could be forgiven for thinking that public attitudes on immigration must be immutably hardline. But while broad support for free movement may not exist, the government’s approach to immigration is far less pragmatic than the public’s. If the previous Labour government was more liberal than the average voter on immigration – failing to make, let alone win, the case for the lack of transitional controls that most EU countries adopted in 2004 – this government is much more reactionary.

It is Theresa May who has driven this, first as home secretary, then as prime minister. The wrangles over last week’s immigration white paper remind us that, despite the fact she voted Remain, she is an outrider on immigration in her own cabinet. Her approach has been twofold. First, she has resolutely stuck to the arbitrary and undeliverable pledge to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands. She has consistently refused to remove international students from immigration figures, despite wide public support for such an approach. In spite of high levels of public support for immigration to help staff the NHS and social care, 1,500 doctors with NHS job offers had their visa applications turned down earlier this year.

Second, she has sought to create a cruel and punitive “hostile environment” in order to drive illegal immigrants out. Not only is there little evidence this is working – it makes the problem worse by driving people further underground, into trafficking and slavery – it has cruelly ensnared people here in Britain legally. Members of the Windrush generation who have lived here and paid taxes for decades have been denied NHS treatment and wrongfully deported. At the same time, it is becoming harder for immigrants to obtain long-term legal status: children as young as 10 are subject to a good character test, while young people who have grown up in Britain face extortionate feesin order to secure their permanent status.

The white paper achieves the impressive feat of setting out a post-Brexit immigration framework that will increase public concerns, while making things much more difficult for businesses. There will be no cap on visas above an earnings threshold. But for those below it – £30,000 has been mooted, which would exclude junior doctors, nurses and care workers – there will be no long-term visas. Instead, businesses will be able to apply for 12-month temporary visas, resulting in more, not less, churn in areas with high levels of migration. This is contrary to the strong public preference for immigrants to “put down roots and integrate” and is based on the false notion that continuity matters little in lower-paid jobs. Try telling that to the older person whose carer changes every few months.

According to the white paper, its proposals will hit Treasury coffers to the tune of £2bn-£5bn between 2021 and 2025. The implicit argument is it’s worth it, because of public perceptions that low-skilled immigration can depress wages, even though there is little evidence to support this and Britain’s ageing population requires more working-age taxpayers to help fund the healthcare and pensions of the older generation.

Meanwhile, attitudes to immigration have become warmer: 55% of people think it is good for the country, compared with 40% in 2011. More than 90% of voters believe immigration is essential, but its levels should be determined by economic need and there are far fewer people now than in 2011 whose hostility to immigration is driven by prejudice to other ethnicities and religions.

This does not mean the public is on the verge of enthusiastically endorsing free movement. But neither is there any appetite for the hostile environment.

British voters are pragmatic about immigration, where its economic benefits are clear and it is perceived to be carefully managed. So if there were a referendum on May’s deal, arguments that free movement would be handled differently were we to remain a member of the EU could resonate if framed in the right way.

These arguments should not be based solely on the economic benefits of free movement – many voters haven’t seen them, not least because of austerity. Nor should they depend on the fanciful idea that the EU will quickly move to reform its free movement regulations. Instead, they must focus on the domestic response to population movements by using all the levers available under existing EU rules, such as registration and labour market permits, but also on reassuring communities that migration into their area will trigger a balancing flow of resources.

From the hostile environment, which appears designed to emit dog whistles to the 5% or so of the population whose hostility to immigration is driven by racism, to Brexit, May has done untold harm to the national interest, all the while arguing that she is responding to public concerns. But her approach is based on a caricature of Britain that does not stand up to scrutiny.

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Source: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/23/observer-view-immigration-white-paper

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