Immigration u-turns ‘reflect role of public opinion’


The second saw an overnight change on the NHS surcharge – an additional fee for all time-limited visas from outside the EU – scrap­ping this charge for NHS and care workers (Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images).
The second saw an overnight change on the NHS surcharge – an additional fee for all time-limited visas from outside the EU – scrap­ping this charge for NHS and care workers (Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images).

By Sunder Katwala
Director, British Future thinktank

THE immigration bill currently before parlia­ment is the biggest change in British immi­gration policy for 40 years, though it has had a much lower profile than it would have done in usual times.

The bill was carried comfortably – the sec­ond reading majority of 351 votes to 252 last week reflecting this gov­ernment’s confidence it can get its legislation through parliament.

Yet, within three days, there have been two government u-turns on immigration policy. The first saw the government extend its policy of unconditional leave to remain for the families of NHS workers who have died of Cov­id-19, accepting that this should apply not just to doctors and nurses, but also to cleaners and porters, and to care workers outside the NHS too.

The second saw an overnight change on the NHS surcharge – an additional fee for all time-limited visas from outside the EU – scrap­ping this charge for NHS and care workers.

Prime minister Boris Johnson defended the policy against question­ing from Labour leader Keir Starmer, as neces­sary to raise resources, but changed his mind overnight. It was no co­incidence that the change of policy came late on a Thursday af­ternoon, a few hours before the ninth weekly round of applause for NHS and care workers.

This was a clear ex­ample of how this new weekly ritual, in which about half of the popu­lation of the country have participated, adds to political and media pressure on a govern­ment for policy change.

Surveys showed ma­jority support for scrap­ping the surcharge for health workers, but support for the policy in principle. Yet most peo­ple would never have heard of the NHS sur­charge before this argu­ment to scrap it.

Though government and opposition politi­cians are constantly de­vising policies designed to reassure the public, it was striking how few participants in British Future’s National Con­versation on Immigra­tion had heard of them. The intuition that mi­grants should pay into public services like the NHS is a popular one, reflecting the contribu­tory view of public ser­vices. The counter that migrants already do this, by paying their taxes, is less well known. Though the evidence is that mi­grants make a ‘net con­tribution’ to the public finances, most people find the meaning of such terms rather abstract.

The government will try to limit the exemp­tion to NHS and care workers. Campaigners might ask it to show its workings – as to why the extra payment is fair, given the taxes paid. The fairness case might also be communicated more effectively if NHS staff advocate alongside others – for example, a nurse who is relieved at no longer having to pay the extra fee asking why it is fair for a primary school teacher to do so.

The debate took place in a mostly virtual parliament, so that MPs spoke in turn without the usual interventions and exchanges, making it easier for the parties to talk past each other. The Conservatives em­phasised the end of free movement, as what the voters wanted. Labour MPs spoke about the increased awareness of so-called “low-skilled” workers. The SNP argued that Scotland’s views and needs were different.

Tory backbenchers mostly spoke about the new rules being fairer and more welcoming to migrants from outside the EU, rather than talk­ing about reducing im­migration significantly.

The latest quarterly figures showed rising non-EU migration while EU net migration has fallen, though future policy will be made in a very different post-pan­demic economic context.

Both government u-turns illustrate the type of “winning coalition” that might persuade a Conservative majority government to change its mind. Opposition parties can give an issue profile, but there needs to be significant pressure from its own backbench­ers. The government is sensitive to media pres­sure, especially when it reflects shifting public attitudes on immigration.

The immigration bill debate highlighted a number of other issues where coalitions of “un­usual allies” might coa­lesce to make policy changes possible in this parliament. Former im­migration minister Car­oline Nokes spoke for a new approach to social care in devising the new system. David Davis, a supporter of ending free movement, is seeking cross-party support for ending indefinite detention, with a time-limit and proper judicial oversight. Alberto Costa called for a review of citizenship policy, including the highest citizen­ship fees in the world. And Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Af­fairs Committee, drew some flak on social me­dia for saying that she would abstain on the bill, so as to seek to bro­ker consensus on con­structive amendments.

During this reset mo­ment for Britain’s immi­gration system, influ­encing policy outcomes will depend on efforts to bridge the different political tribes.