The last Conservative Budget imposed a higher rate of stamp duty on foreigners who buy property in the UK, a policy with echoes of the Home Office’s “hostile environment” policy. Earlier this week, Sajid Javid revealed a disappointing proposal to introduce a salary floor of £30,000 for future immigrants, a move likely to stifle the labour market while doing little to address the employability of lower-skilled Brits. There are illogical plans to allow low-skilled workers to come to Britain for only 12 months, and then requiring them to leave for a 12-month “cooling period” before returning.
Finally, self-destructive proposals to send international students away six months after graduation not only prevent employers benefiting from their skills accrued in British universities, but rip those individuals away from the country where they chose to study and start a new life. Since non-EU students pay much higher fees than UK ones do – in effect, subsidising them – anything which makes studying in Britain less attractive will have knock-on effects for British students, and the provision of higher education in general.
Granted, it wasn’t all bad news. The White Paper sensibly calls for an end to the misguided cap on skilled workers. Yet the affirmation that freedom of movement – one of the best aspects of the European Union – will end, and the generally negative tone surrounding the entire debate, more than outweigh the positives.
For too long, immigration in Britain has been viewed as a necessary evil, rather than an exciting opportunity to embrace new freedoms. Shortly before the budget, Liz Truss reprimanded ministers who publicly demanded more and more money for their departments, and her argument is valid here too: it is not “macho” to engage in a competition of who can ‘talk toughest’ on immigration, there are real-world consequences to this kind of rhetoric.
“Talking tough” on migration amounts to economic illiteracy. Overwhelming evidence tells us that immigrants create jobs rather than take them, they have higher education levels than native Brits, they add to our economy and society, and – far from stretching public services – subsidise and staff them.
HMRC’s own figures show that EU migrants paid £2.54bn more in income tax and national insurance than they received in tax credits or child benefit in 2013-14. And a study by Aston University concluded that people from ethnic minority backgrounds and immigrants to the UK are twice as likely to be early-stage entrepreneurs as their white British counterparts.
So, where do we go from here? A future immigration system should be designed to allow our economy to be as competitive as possible; it should not start from the principle of actively trying to make Britain an unattractive place for migrants.
Above all, there should be no arbitrary cap on immigration. Free marketeers spend most of their time arguing against caps in the market, so it is always curious when “libertarians” indulge in nativism and start arguing for hardcore central planning in the area of immigration. Why? The number of nurses or engineers who come to work here should be determined by the market, not a government minister’s opinion on any given day.
Further rejecting central planning, we should retain freedom of movement with the EU, a policy that has ensured a steady stream of workers to fill lower-skilled jobs and extended freedoms to our own citizens as well.
We should also extend freedom of movement to other countries too. For example, one of the proposals that most excites British voters is open borders between Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. Indeed, CANZUK International polling of 13,600 people across all four countries found support for freedom of movement stood at 68 per cent in the UK, 76 per cent in Canada, 73 per cent in Australia, and 82 per cent in New Zealand. But there would be no need to stop just at CANZUK, we could also look to extend such freedoms with the United States and others too.
But, while freedom of movement is an attractive measure, it would be impractical and politically impossible to extend it to every country across the globe. Here, there are a couple of alternative routes we could take.
We could take the current system and make some internal changes. For example, when New Labour introduced a points-based system to immigration, it did not initially involve caps, however, points-based systems involve a lot of bureaucracy, and do not work in practice as well as their proponents would have you believe.
A less bureaucratic and more radical step would be to charge immigrants a fee that could operate similarly to a student loans system. This system would remove the administrative control that points-based systems bring.
Perhaps the most compelling solution for countries with which we don’t have free movement would be an auction-based system in which employers can bid for permits that would allow them to hire foreign workers. This presents a much more streamlined process than a points-based system as it allows employers to hire individuals who they have identified, rather than the government deciding who fits the bill according to random criteria.
You could have more than one system, for example, separating low-skilled, high-skilled and seasonal workers, along with an independent body of experts setting the number of visas up for auction at any given time, creating a system responsive to market changes.
Regardless of individual policy suggestions, though, Britain must change the tone of the immigration debate. Our country – as perhaps the most successful multi-ethnic nation in existence – should be the strongest voice in favour of immigration.
From nurses and doctors working in the NHS, to the founders of great British businesses like Deliveroo, M&S and easyJet, we all benefit from the contributions immigrants make to our economy and society – from the music we listen to, the food we eat, the television we watch and the people we cheer for in football matches. Even Prince Philip is an immigrant, and nobody questions whether or not he is British.
It’s time for neoliberals to seize control of the immigration debate and made the unapologetic, freedom-fighting case for immigration. A “global Britain” requires we do this, our economy depends on it, and our citizens will greatly benefit from it. What are we waiting for?