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Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Immigration: an ace no politician can properly play

Immigration: an ace no politician can properly play


Broken promises and flawed proposals leave Britons awaiting a killer move, writes Matthew Rogers

Broken promises and flawed proposals leave Britons awaiting a killer move, writes Matthew Rogers

The Remain and Leave campaigns continue to play their hands at the Brexit poker table in hope of winning the public vote. However, as the chips run out, their ace in the hole - immigration - remains a card neither side is yet to properly play.

EU migrants entering Britain under freedom of movement is one of the key issues for voters on 23 June. Bremainers argue migration contributes to our economy and bridges skill gaps; Brexiteers counter that it strains public services and takes jobs away from UK citizens. So who's right?

Research by University College London in 2014 suggested EU migrants have contributed more than £20bn to the UK between 2001 and 2011, paying more in taxes than they have received in benefits. However, the Office for National Statistics has recorded the second highest level of net migration to the UK at 333,000 for those staying in the country beyond one year, with EU citizens accounting for 184,000.

David Cameron has faced criticism in recent months, not least for the renegotiation deal that failed to achieve fundamental reform, according to his detractors. The prime minister's attempts to put-off EU citizens coming to the UK with an emergency brake on in-work benefits and social housing has done little to reassure some who point to his 2010 manifesto pledge capping net migration at 100,000.

So what is the alternative? Well, according to Boris Johnson: 'A genuine Australian-style points-based immigration system'. The former London mayor has signed a joint statement approving a potential government in waiting policy with fellow Leave campaigners Michael Gove and Priti Patel.

Proponents of the Australian model want to see migrants ranked for entry based on their age, English skills, qualifications, and work experience. However, Darren Stevenson, principal at specialist immigration firm McGill & Solicitors, said the points-based policy proposal was 'somewhat incongruous' given the UK's failure to successfully implement past immigration policies, such as the tier 1 general visa which has led to greater restrictions.

'Arguably we have already had that system and restricted it so much that any replacement is bound to be a relaxation,' he told me. 'I would also say that the current UK visas and Immigration is a drastically failing organisation; by making our points based system progressively more restrictive, caseworkers have become deskilled and decision making is very poor. An Australian-style system will demand better trained, better resourced caseworkers, and significant operational change within the Home Office.'

Thom Brooks, professor of law and government at Durham University, said those in favour of the Australian model show little understanding of it: 'The UK implemented a similar system about a decade ago under Tony Blair for non-EU citizens. It is meant to attract skilled workers and provide a clear path to permanent residency. Yet Brexit campaigners seem to be the only ones who think it would lead to less migration - there is certainly no evidence to support the argument.'

Brooks added that the public's distrust in politicians will continue to grow if they are fed with ever evolving, seemingly contradictory, and lacking evidence positions: 'The public don't give much trust to politicians. When politicians make claims they can't defend or maintain, it is only bound to damage these bonds of trust further. If only immigration was not seen as a political football, but the important public policy it is - by either side in the debate.'

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