by LAUREN CODLING
THE ruling Conservative and opposition Labour parties both outlined their respective plans for immigration during election campaigns this week, without committing to numbers or confirming if migration will increase or decrease after Britain leaves the EU.
Policies regarding immigration and a control over numbers entering the UK have become central to parties’ election campaigns.
Setting out its post-Brexit immigration policy, the Tory party said last Sunday (17) it would treat migrants from EU and non-EU countries on par from January 2021, including a five-year wait to obtain welfare payments and a surcharge to access health services.
“As we come out of the EU, we have a new opportunity for fairness and to make sure all those who come here are treated the same. We will make our immigration system equal,” prime minister Boris Johnson said in a statement.
In previous years the Conservatives pledged to reduce migration to tens of thousands, from the prevailing hundreds of thousands. However, successive governments led by David Cameron and Theresa May have failed to honour that pledge. Senior ministers have made clear they would be giving up the party’s commitment to reduce net migration down below 100,000 a year.
Under Johnson, the Conservatives have proposed introducing an Australian-style, points-based system for nationals of all countries, including India, in the hope that it will “reduce immigration overall”.
Home secretary Priti Patel said immigration would “finally be subject to democratic control, allowing us to get overall numbers down”. “We will reduce immigration overall while being more open and flexible to the highly skilled people we need, such as scientists and doctors. This can only happen if people vote for a Conservative majority government so we can leave the EU with a deal,” Patel said.
Last weekend, Labour said that it would allow “a great deal of movement” of people, signalling a liberal immigration policy overall.
However, speaking ahead of the manifesto launch on Thursday (21), party leader Jeremy Corbyn stopped short of confirming that freedom of movement would not end after the UK left the EU. He later stressed a Labour government led by him would not bring in a “hostile environment”, a policy associated with May, during her term as home secretary.
Liberal Democrats leader Jo Swinson – who is running on a pledge to revoke Brexit – has called immigration “a good thing” and argued the UK benefits from it.
Criticising plans proposed by the Conservatives, Swinson said they were “predicated on an assumption that people coming to our country are trying to ‘do us over’.
“At the moment we cause fear in those communities for the hoops we make them jump through for settled status – we are better than this,” she told reporters.
Immigration was one of the key factors of the 2016 referendum, which resulted in the UK voting to leave the EU.
Speaking to Eastern Eye, Jonathan Portes, professor of economics and public policy at King’s College, London, noted that the main parties appeared to adopt a “less restrictive approach” to immigration than under former prime minister May.
“Whatever happens, there may be some improvement, although policy towards EU migrants will depend on Brexit,” Portes explained.
In 2012, then-home secretary May implemented the controversial hostile environment policies which were designed to make staying in the UK as difficult as possible for people without leave to remain status.
Sunder Katwala, director of the nonpartisan thinktank British Future, claimed parliament would see the “biggest immigration reform for a generation”, if Johnson secured the majority.
“If a hung parliament means new negotiations or another referendum, then Labour and the Liberal Democrats would need to win the argument for free movement,” Katwala told Eastern Eye. Analysing the proposals so far, Katwala said the party-political debate had “moved closer to where the public are”.
“(They are) seeing both pressures and gains of immigration, in its contribution to the NHS, universities and skills we need,” the thinktank leader said.
Speaking to Eastern Eye, public affairs and campaigns manager at Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) Minnie Rahman called the snap election a “golden opportunity” to rebuild the immigration system. Referring to current policies as “racist, unfair and unfit for purpose,” Rahman recommended the elected government dismantle the hostile environment.
She also urged to maintain freedom of movement for EU citizens, remove the minimum income requirement for spouse visas, and reform the asylum system so “people can have their claims heard fairly and without delay.”
Fizza Qureshi, the co-CEO of Migrants’ Rights Network, said the organisation was disappointed by some proposals from leading parties which suggested they would be ending free movement. It will leave many people living in the UK and overseas in uncertainty, Qureshi told Eastern Eye, and felt like a shortsighted move when the country is so
heavily reliant on migrants for a successful economy.
“We would welcome all the parties to consider the impact their proposed policies have when they talk about numbers of people, targets and skills on migrants and settled BAME communities, and wider society,” Qureshi said.
“If we can’t make the UK a welcoming place then no-one will be attracted to come and make the UK their home.”
Reflecting upon the current policies and outlines for the future, Matthew Fell, Confederation of British Industry’s (CBI) chief UK policy director, urged for a system which would work for the UK economy.
“(It) is as important as forging a new economic relationship with the EU, our biggest trading partner,” Fell said. “Businesses know change is coming and will need time to adapt. But there is concern that the focus of a new system is so squarely on skills – the UK has labour shortages that must also be filled.”
Business and government need to work together to train UK workers, he said, while developing an open but controlled immigration system that grows our economy.
Responding to immigration policies put forward by the Conservatives, Labour’s shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said the damage done to society had been through cuts by the
governing party to public services and “not by EU nationals coming to work in them.”
As Eastern Eye went to press on Tuesday (19), Johnson and Corbyn were due to go head-to-head in their first TV debate of the election campaign, facing scrutiny over their plans for Brexit and public spending.
Prior to the debate, polls showed the Conservatives had surged ahead with an 11-point lead. They had an average of 39.9 per cent, ahead of Labour on 29.0 per cent. Manifestos from each party are due to be released in the run-up to the December 12 election.