Author: David Hannay
David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.
The government and their Brexit supporters continue to claim divine democratic legitimacy from the referendum result. They use it to make various policy choices which were either barely mentioned in the referendum campaign or on which precisely contrary indications were given. Leaving the single market and the customs union are the most notable examples.
But what about immigration, a policy area which actually did figure prominently in the campaign – albeit in the form of false innuendoes, plain lies and a promise to take back control over a policy we already controlled and always had controlled, namely immigration from countries outside the EU? Remember the claims that Turkish accession was imminent, with 80 million Turks free to come to Britain? Or the posters showing an endless queue of asylum seekers – whose access to the UK we in fact controlled ourselves?
So why the silence about Britain’s new post-Brexit immigration regime? The government has said precisely nothing so far in all the floods of prime ministerial speeches and UK position papers for the Brexit negotiations.
The answers are a bit different between the government and the Brexiters. The government is genuinely conflicted about what to do and paralysed by divided counsels. Too liberal a regime and they will be assailed by many of their own supporters in Parliament and by millions of voters who opted for Leave. Too tough a regime and they will inflict serious damage on the economy and will prejudice the chances of negotiating a good trade deal with the other 27 EU countries. For the Brexiters this is just another awkward issue which is better left until after the door slams shut behind us in March 2019.
Hence the government’s absurdly dilatory timetable which involves losing the immigration ball in the long grass of the Migration Advisory Committee until the autumn, and then promising a White Paper and legislation at unspecified points beyond that.
Does this matter? It most certainly does. For one thing it means that, in all likelihood, Parliament will be asked to take its decision on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations without knowing what the government intends to do on the critically important issue of immigration. For another, there is not the slightest chance of getting any specificity about the future trade relationship between the UK and the EU until we can say how we are going to treat EU citizens coming to work or study in this country after January 2021. Britain’s negotiators in Brussels, where negotiations over trade are now getting under way, will simply have to say they don’t know the answer to that question, and are not likely to do so any time soon. Hardly a comfortable position for negotiators to find themselves in.
Meanwhile, in the real world in which we actually live, the parameters of the problem are changing all the time. Immigration from the other EU countries is dropping steadily, driven by the lethargic economy here and the more rapidly growing one in the rest of the EU and by the lower value of sterling following the Brexit vote adjustment. And important sectors of our economy – the NHS, seasonal agricultural labour, the hospitality sector, universities – are already beginning to feel the pinch from the lower availability of EU labour, a harbinger of things to come if the government goes for a tough new regime.
Oddly too the government has just opted to retain full free movement for the 21-month transitional period after exit, provoking no serious protest at all. And, as we have seen over the Windrush saga in recent days, the doubts over our capacity to actually implement and operate in a humane manner a complex restrictive immigration regime remain unanswered.
So it is high time the government came clean on its future plans for immigration, and subjected them to public and parliamentary scrutiny. Otherwise both they and we are storing up some unpleasant surprises for the future; and parliament risks being asked to buy a pig in a poke in the autumn when the promise of a “meaningful” Brexit process is put to the test.