Immigration:- putting the cart before the horse?

Last week, the Guardian published a leaked draft of a Home Office document entitled  ‘Borders, Immigration and Citizenship System After the UK Leaves the EU’

It contained the welcome news that the Government is determined to bring immigration down and intends to use the opportunities presented by Brexit to honour – albeit rather belatedly – its pledge to bring net migration down below 100,000.

Given the high profile of the immigration issue during last year’s referendum campaign, it is the least the government can do. In summary, free movement will come to an end on Brexit day. A scheme for seasonal workers will allow our fruit to be picked, but work permits will be time-limited, with those for low-skilled workers lasting only two years, with no right to settle. For all new EU workers, the right to bring family members will be significantly curtailed. UK companies will be encouraged to take on UK workers where possible.  Though it does not give precise details, the document says the UK is minded to introduce an income threshold for some EU citizens before they will be allowed to reside here.

It all sounds good in theory. There are good,sound reasons for slashing immigration. The pressure exerted by migrants is making it harder for native Brits to get onto the housing ladder or, in some places, to see a GP or find a place for their children in a local school. The use of short-term work permits will give the government  – and indeed, business – greater flexibility, especially as advances in robotics will drastically shrink the numbers of low-skilled workers required. Some experts suggest that we will have problems finding work for all the current UK working age population within 30 years. We certainly don’t want to saddle ourselves with lots of migrants whose jobs have been taken by machines but who have a right to stay here.

Of course, a Tory party which has found itself on the back foot since the General Election will be keen to do all it can to rebuild its support and there are plenty of voted to be garnered by being tough on immigration.

Yet the welcome given to this document must be tempered with a feeling that the Government is rather putting the cart before the horse. We know what it wants to do about immigration but very little about its proposed relationship with the EU. We would probably be able to implement most these restrictions as a member of EFTA and accessing the Single Market via the EEA agreement and applying restrictions in the same way as Liechtenstein, in spite of claims by one EU official that  “Limits on numbers of people or categories of migrant worker are incompatible with single market access.” They seem to have forgotten this small Alpine country which invalidates their argument.  Likewise, we would certainly be able to restrict migration if we stormed out of the current negotiations and left the EU in March 2019 with no agreement and some commentators are suggesting that this is seriously being considered.

The EFTA route has thus far not been in favour while walking out would be foolish and lead to the “cliff edge” which we are repeatedly being told the Government wishes to avoid. So what, then, is the Brexit framework into which these immigration proposals will fit?

Furthermore, if the Government is serious about reducing net migration below 100,000, what about immigration from outside the EU? The most recent statistics did record a drop in arrivals from EU-27, but arrivals from the rest of the world stood at 266,000 during the same period. The government could act here and now to stem the flow if it so desired. Then what about illegal immigrants? Will the Government finally get serious and deport them?

So while this document is a step in the right direction, a lot of questions remain unanswered.

 

Brexit: what we want and what we might get

The last week has seen the publication of a number of positions papers by the Department for Exiting the European Union, covering issues ranging from trade and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice through to the Irish border. You will find articles which review each position paper on the website.

Of course, what the UK government wants and what the EU will agree to may not be the same thing. Indeed,  at least one commentator is claiming that the position papers do not yet reflect a final government position but are but one side of “an internal debate within the Conservative Party.”

But what do UK voters want from Brexit? A survey by the London School of Economics and Oxford University asked more than 3,000 people for their thoughts – including both leave and remain voters.

The most interesting finding is the unity between remain and leave voters on a number of issues. Barely one third of those surveyed are keen on single market membership, ongoing EU payments, free movement and the jurisdiction of the ECJ once we leave. Significantly, this majority includes a number of remain voters.

Although there is widespread support for a free trade agreement with the EU (88%), 69% want customs checks introduced at the borders – some what contradictory stances!

What is more significant is that this survey offers little support for hard-core remoaners and remainiacs  who wish to stall Brexit. The referendum is now behind us; the majority of the population has accepted the result and wants to see the government make the most of the opportunity leaving the EU provides.

What sort of deal we will get, of course, is another issue. Analysis of the position papers published so far  do not give us any sort of detail about how deals on many areas are going to be concluded. We have seen what amounts to a UK wish list which the EU may well decide to refuse.

Still, amidst all the concerns about the lack of progress by the Department for Exiting the European Union, one good piece of news appeared today. Net migration (immigrants minus emigrants) has fallen by 81,000 from 327,000 to 246,000 in the year to March.  The number of EU nationals coming to the UK fell while over 33,000 more additional EU nationals left the country, including an extra 17,000 from the so-called EU8, the former Soviet bloc countries who joined the EU in 2004. 246,000 immigrants still equates to a city the size of Hull or Plymouth and is well above the Conservatives’ net migration target of under 100,000. This drop is nonetheless welcome. Many individual factors no doubt contributed to it, but Brexit would indisputably have been one of the reasons. Given that one  of the reason for the Brexit vote was a desire to end free movement and thus bring immigration down, it is encouraging to see that it has already had a benign effect – and without the Government even doing anything!

Photo by dullhunk

Migration, housing, robots, lettuces… Time for some joined-up thinking

Some clear thinking on how post-Brexit Britain will function is urgently needed and it seems in rather short supply at the moment. On the one hand, arch-remoaner Lord Mandelson recently claimed that the electorate will change its mind about Brexit when levels of immigration fail to drop. His assumption is that it will not do so – an assumption which has already been contradicted by a survey from the Chartered Institute of Personnel, whose members are suggesting that there has been a drop in the number of workers from EU countries coming to the UK.  Quoting statistics from the Office of National Statistics, more than 60,000 EU workers came to the UK in each of the three quarters prior to the referendum. That number fell below 30,000 in the three months to the end of September. Furthermore, the most recent quarterly figures from the Office of National Statistics saw net migration fall by 49,000, with 23,000 fewer people arriving and 26,000 more departing. In other words, Mandelson’s claims have already been rebutted and we haven’t even triggered Article 50!

Indeed, ever since the referendum result, some EU citizens resident in the UK have been considering returning home. The Chartered Institute of Personnel report claims that up to a quarter of firms in their survey believed that some of the EU nationals they employ are possibly considering leaving the country in 2017.

David Davis recently told an audience in Estonia that the UK would not suddenly shut the door on low-skilled migration form the EU. The word “suddenly” is significant. If on Brexit day, all migration were to cease, it could cause labour shortages in several sectors, but fast forward a few years and the ability to control migration is likely to be a great blessing. Mr Davis said it will take “years and years” to persuade British workers to do jobs in the hospitality industry or agriculture that are currently carried out by EU migrants, arguing the economy needs continued immigration to maintain its success. This, however, is questionable. Will these jobs still be done by human beings, British or otherwise? As far back as November 2015, speaking to the Trades Union Congress, Andy Haldane of the Bank of England suggested that within  a decade, as many as 15 million jobs could be at risk of automation – in other words, replaced by robots. Although Mr Haldane didn’t mention migration, many of the jobs which he cited as vulnerable, such as “production tasks” are done by migrants.

The idea that we need migrants to fund our pensions unless we want to work into our 70s, as suggested by John Cridland, a director of the CBI, is therefore very debatable. Within 10-15 years, even if Mr Haldane’s figure of 15 million is a bit optimistic,  we could well be suffering from a surfeit of labour almost on a par with the 19th century when mechanization resulted in a massive fall in the number of farm labourers needed to work the land. Fortunately, at that time, industry was able to absorb the surplus labour, but in the early 21st century, few, if any, growth industries are labour intensive. What will we do with all the unemployed immigrants? Perhaps Mr Cridland would like to answer. One thing is sure, if their jobs have been displaced by robots, they will not be contributing to anyone’s pension.

The likely reduction in migration on Brexit should therefore be welcomed as an incentive to develop artificial intelligence. As far back as July 2013, Fraser Nelson of the Spectator  wrote “We have to wean the country off the drug of immigration.” In Japan, the robotics revolution is already under way.  Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance is laying off 34 employees and replacing them with an artificial intelligence system. Besides saving on salaries, the company reckons that the new machine will be more productive as it can calculate policyholder payouts at a much faster rate than humans.

Japan has never been keen on encouraging immigration and even with a falling population, the electorate would rather encourage more women back into the labour force or else increase the number of older retirement-age workers. While the well-entrenched Japanese preference for cultural homogeneity and very little immigration has attracted much criticism, in the age of robotics, contrary to received wisdom, it may well prove a blessing.

Certainly, as a result of its opposition to large-scale immigration Japan has been spared some of the problems which the UK is facing. In many parts of our country, groups are forming to oppose large-scale housebuilding on green field sites. In places like the Cotswolds and East Kent for example, there is widespread anger at the prospect of large, unsightly developments. Were it not for immigration, the UK population would be more or less static and there would be no need to concrete over the countryside.

And the problems of removing land from agricultural use has been highlighted recently by the sharp increases in the costs of vegetables such as lettuces and courgettes. Poor weather conditions in southern Europe, including flooding in Spain and cold weather in Italy, where many winter vegetables are grown, has been the cause.  Why not, then, grow more produce in this country? This is what some MPs are proposing and it makes a lot of sense as we are only 77% self-sufficient for food. However, a growing population fuelled by immigration, leading to less available agricultural land is only going to make things worse.

These challenging issues give the lie to claims that those who voted for Brexit out of a desire to reduce immigration were all motivated by racism. It is more a case of weighing up the alternatives and deciding that a cut in immigration is the better option. What is racist about the concern that if migration is not reduced, we will be vulnerable to food shortages? Or that we are likely to find ourselves stuck with possibly millions of unemployed immigrants once the artificial intelligence revolution really gets under way? From the Flemish weavers through to the Huguenots, immigration benefitted the UK in the past but things are different now.

Of course, those who have already settled in the UK should not be booted out on Brexit. Of course,  UK citizens should be free to marry a spouse from another country. Of course, the international nature of our academic institutions should be allowed to continue, but large scale migration is another matter. Weighed in the balance, it is likely to cause more problems, particularly in the longer term, than it solves.

The government therefore needs to engage in some joined-up thinking as it plans its post-Brexit immigration policy. Next year marks 70 years since the arrival of 492 Caribbean citizens on board MV Empire Windrush  – an event which marked the beginning of large-scale immigration to the UK. We needed those people then and they are to be admired for their tenacity in  staying put in the face of quite blatant hostility. 70 years on, however, the assumption that we will still need to bring people – particularly low-skilled workers – into this crowded little island is looking very questionable.

Mrs May keeps us guessing

It would have been a futile exercise to report every twist and turn in the recent debate about “hard” and “soft” Brexit. Far better to wait and see what Mrs May and her collegaues actually plan to do.

Yesterday, we were given some inkling as to her future plans, although it didn’t amount to as much detail as many would have liked.

There were, however, some encouragements in other areas. She made it quite clear that there was to be no second referendum and that those who wanted to challenge the result needed to wake up and smell the coffee:- “But come on.  The referendum result was clear.  It was legitimate.  It was the biggest vote for change this country has ever known.  Brexit means Brexit – and we’re going to make a success of it.”

This has been one of Mrs May’s stock phrases since taking office.  Yesterday, we came a little nearer to knowing what it actually meant. “There will be no unnecessary delays in invoking Article 50.  We will invoke it when we are ready.  And we will be ready soon.  We will invoke Article 50 no later than the end of March next year.” Fair enough. This is a confirmation of what had widely been expected. Thankfully, business will have less than six more months of uncertainty, for as well as a date being set, it is looks likely that by then, our exit route will have been determined.

But what will that route be? We were told what it would not be:- “It is not going to a “Norway model”. It’s not going to be a “Switzerland model”.  It is going to be an agreement between an independent, sovereign United Kingdom and the European Union.” Furthermore, alongside repealing the 1972 Accession Treaty, she intends to convert the Acquis into UK law when the Article 50 period is complete, so the WTO route looks to be off the table too.

So what does that leave us with? How is she planning to square the circle between trade and immigration control? There was not a great deal of detail:- “I know some people ask about the “trade-off” between controlling immigration and trading with Europe.  But that is the wrong way of looking at things.  We have voted to leave the European Union and become a fully-independent, sovereign country.  We will do what independent, sovereign countries do.  We will decide for ourselves how we control immigration. And we will be free to pass our own laws.”

On the one hand, she was quite clear that some restriction of freedom of movement will have to be part of any deal:- “We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again” yet at the same time she insisted, “I want it to give British companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate in the Single Market – and let European businesses do the same here.

Still a bit opaque. The Liechtenstein compromise would fit all the criteria she listed. Another possibility would be the Australian model. In 1997, Australia’s government signed a joint declaration on EU-Australian relations, followed two years later by a Mutual Recognition Agreement. The UK could do likewise, or make a unilateral declaration, up to and including a commitment to full regulatory harmonisation. There don’t seem to be many other choices.

Mrs May is deliberately not giving too much away on the negotiating tactics, but she didn’t mince her words about the irreconcilable Remainiacs:- “When it legislated to establish the referendum, Parliament put the decision to leave or remain inside the EU in the hands of the people.  And the people gave their answer with emphatic clarity.  So now it is up to the Government not to question, quibble or backslide on what we have been instructed to do, but to get on with the job.

Because those people who argue that Article Fifty can only be triggered after agreement in both Houses of Parliament are not standing up for democracy, they’re trying to subvert it.  They’re not trying to get Brexit right, they’re trying to kill it by delaying it.  They are insulting the intelligence of the British people.”

In summary,  there were some good things in the speech and not a lot to cause major concern, although Richard North takes the PM to task for claiming we would make our own decisions about how our food is labelled, as those regulations originate with the World Trade Organisation, to which (presumably) she would still wish us to belong. That apart, it was a speech which certainly did not deserve the put-down in the Daily Mirror, suggesting that Mrs May was a prisoner of “ideological Tories who get out of bed every morning to wind back the clock to a bygone age.”  Such garbage is typical of those people who do not accept that it is the EU which is a relic of a bygone age. On the contrary, Mrs May wasn’t anyone’s prisoner. She was spelling out her own positive vision for our future in that speech. The Sun called her a “capable PM we  can be proud of.”  Well, she is continuing to wn over the doubters and  you could sense her genuine enthusiasm as she talked about her “ambitious vision” for post-Brexit UK and it’s good that she isn’t letting herself be rushed, but a little bit more detail about how we  are going to get there would be welcome.  Hopefully , we won’t have too long to wait.

Another headache for the EU

Concerns about the EU’s cherished principle of free movement of people is not only confined to the UK. Non-EU Switzerland voted to restrict migration from the EU in a referendum in 2014.

The EU was not happy with the result and has threatened to rescind the bilateral treaties which govern its relationship with Switzerland. but the Swiss have not backed down.   The deadline for an agreement is February next year. The treaties, which cover everything from agriculture to civil aviation and the free movement of people, contain a “guillotine” clause that would nullify all if one is struck down.

Talks are continuing to avoid this impasse.  EU diplomats reacted positively to a proposal to give Swiss job seekers an advantage over foreigners, but many obstacles still stand in the way of an agreement.

Switzerland has less flexibility in restricting migration than the non-EU members of the EEA. Liechtenstein has exercised its freedom to restrict migration. Switzerland will find it a lot harder to obtain concessions form the EU, as free movement of people is a cornerstone of the EU-Switzerland deal, as Swissinfo explains.

With the 27 other EU member states meeting for something of a crisis meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia, the scale of the EU’s problems is being laid bare.  Even within the EU, the Dutch are calling for an “emergency brake” on immigration. The former Soviet bloc countries are not so keen. Another idea being floated around is a distinction between free movement of workers and free movement of people, but some senior figures within the EU are none too happy about this idea. Come what may, however, it is apparent that both within and without the EU, the thorny issue of immigration is not going to vanish frm the headlines any time soon.

Brexit – the mood at grassroots level eight weeks on

Away from the debate between politicians, businessmen and campaigners  about the best exit route, eight weeks after the memorable result of June’s referendum, life for ordinary people has settled down remarkably quickly.

In fact, it soon became apparent within a matter of days after June 23rd that life was carrying on as normal for much of the country. I recall a trip to London during the final week of June.  Walking down the south bank of the Thames, it struck me how little effect the referendum result  was having on day to day life. A long queue of people of all nationalities were waiting to buy tickets to the London Eye and the restaurants were full – in fact, my train home was even fuller! In short, you wouldn’t have thought we had just taken a major political decision only a few days ago.

Initial statistics suggest that life did indeed carry on much as normal during the first full month after the Brexit vote.  The number of people claiming unemployment related benefits fell by 8,600 in July. It had been expected to rise by around 9,000. The fall was the first since February this year. Other data showed that the employment rate in the UK reached a record high of 74.5% between April and June this year. Retail sales also grew by 1.4% during the month. The vote to leave the EU has not deterred people from spending money.  Furthermore, for all the uncertainly generated by David Cameron’s decision to call the referendum, London attracted more venture capital for start-ups than other major European cities. According to an article in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, it attracted €1.5bn in the first half of the year, well ahead of its nearest rivals Stockholm (€1bn), Paris (€674m), and Berlin (€520m).

Significantly. although the rate of UK consumer price inflation jumped to 0.6% in the year to July followin the Brexit vote, it was only slightly up on the 0.5% recorded in March and still well below the 1% threshold which triggers a letter from the governor of the Bank of England to the Chancellor explaining why inflation is so far below the 2% target!

BBC Radio 4 broadcast an interesting programme on Wednesday Evening where two groups of people from the most pro-leave and the most pro-remain areas of the UK met in separate rooms to discuss their feelings following the Brexit vote. Two Rooms, hosted by Fi Glover,  was another fascinating insight into how quickly life has settled down. The leavers, from Boston, Lincolnshire, were the more optimistic of the two groups, expressing great hopes especially for the UK’s trade prospects. The remainers, from Brixton in South London, talked of their shock when the result was announced. They were concerned about possible loss of access to the single market and expected an economic downturn.

Both groups,  however, accepted the result. Indeed, one person used the phrase “now we’ve left”, even though we haven’t even invoked Article 50 let alone come out the other end! Interestingly, both groups saw Brexit as a long overdue opportunity to re-boot our democracy and to decentralise power to a local level. For all the initial horror of some Brixtonian remainers, there were no calls for a second referendum. They may not have wanted a leave vote, but Brexit as far as they were concrned means Brexit.

Such attitudes at the grassroots level should not come as a shock. For four month’s David Cameron’s decison to call the referendum  thrust the issue of EU membership into a prominence it had never previously enjoyed.  A year ago, just before the General election, a survey by YouGov placed “Europe” as far down as 7th in its list of voters’ priority issues, well behind housing, welfare and health. Anyone who has ever stood as a UKIP candidate will have known the frustration that in general elections, the EU was never widely viewed as the most important factor in determining how people would vote.  After its moment in the spotlight, it is therefore unsurpisingly again receding into the background.

But not totally. News that over a million Eastern European migrants are now working in the UK will have served as a reminder to some people why they voted to leave, while the Daily Express has unearthed another story which will raise plenty of hackles:- a German-based agency called medaltracker.eu whose data is used by offical EU websites, has published a chart showing that the greatest number of medals in the Rio Olympics has been won by the EU! Nowhere is the UK to  be seen, which is  particularly galling considering the tremendous performances by Team GB. It seems that the Brexit vote has done nothing to change the mindset of the EU élite who opened a museum four years ago costing £44 million and called the “House of European History” which calls the Second World War a “civil war“, in spite of quite a bit of the action taking place in North Africa and the Far East

While it seems impossible to change this very selective and bizarre interpretation of history, hopefully, if our government and Civil Service can get their act together, by the time the 2020 Olympics begin in Tokyo, “now we’ve left” really will mean “now we’ve left” and the likes of Medaltracker will not be able to repeat their insult to our heroic athletes.