25 May 2021

‘What next for immigration?’ – conference report

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Steve Ballinger reports from the 'What next for immigration?' conference, jointly hosted by British Future and Bright Blue. The conference opened with a keynote speech and Q&A from Home Secretary Priti Patel, followed by two online panel discussions, on migration for work and refugee protection, featuring a range of speakers from business, politics and civic society.

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“Our immigration system is broken and we will fix it,” Home Secretary Priti Patel said today, as she opened the What next for immigration? conference hosted by Bright Blue and British Future.

In a wide-ranging keynote speech, the Home Secretary sought to balance praise for the positive contribution that immigration has made to the UK, with her argument that the public expected change and greater control.

“Immigration has and continues to enrich, in every sense of the word, our nation immeasurably,” she said, as she also paid tribute to her own background as one of “millions of British-Indians and children of migrant families who have established a life in one of the greatest countries in the world.”

The half-day event, sponsored by the Federation of Small Business and Nomadic, also featured discussion and debate from business, political and civil society voices of policy on migration for work and refugee protection.

The Witham MP promised “wholesale reform of the system” for immigration, starting with a new digital system that would allow the Government to “count people in and count people out” of the country, providing a “far clearer picture of who is here, and whether they should be.”

Responding to a question from the Telegraph’s Charles Hymas, Patel refused, however, to support a return to a numbers-focused approach, describing net migration targets as “language of the past”.

The Home Secretary also focused on her proposed changes to the UK’s system of asylum protection. Reducing the number of dangerous sea crossings made by those trying to reach the UK would be achieved, she said, by targeting those involved in people-smuggling and reducing demand by withdrawing the right to claim refugee status for those who arrive spontaneously in the UK. There was little detail as to how this would be squared with the promise that “we will meet our international obligations,” on refugee protection – a question that was picked up later in the conference.

Before that, however, the first panel discussed changes and challenges on migration for work after Brexit and Covid-19. Martin McTague of the FSB and Brendan Ryan of Nomadic agreed that a key challenge for the new points-based system was to ensure that it works for small and medium-sized businesses, which drive much of the UK’s job and growth.

SMEs are already disproportionately impacted by changes brought about by Brexit and the end of free movement, tech adoption and climate targets as the UK moves towards net zero, they argued. Most have little experience of recruiting internationally, said Brendan, and could be supported through the removal of existing barriers to business travel and the high costs of sponsoring new employees from overseas. Martin said that the system would need to respond more quickly to market changes, with the shortage occupations list reviews every year at the very least.

British Future’s Heather Rolfe warned that economic recovery for the UK could put pressure on the new system, as sectors such as social care, food processing and hospitality struggled to fill job vacancies without an established visa route for low- and medium-skilled workers. Madeleine Sumption of the Migration Observatory said that this pressure could result in more people working in the unregulated economy; while former government advisor Salma Shah suggested that linking migration policy to the levelling-up agenda could offer some answers if it helped to up-skill local people to fill new vacancies.

Our final discussion panel focused on refugee protection.

David Simmonds MP highlighted the importance of social contact among people who often don’t get a chance to meet. That applied to the public, who generally like the refugees and migrants that they meet but unfortunately don’t get to meet many; and it also applied to refugee advocates and conservatives, who can lead similarly parallel lives. He issued a friendly challenge to supporters of refugee protection to try to reach out to conservatives who might share their views.

Arten Llazari drew on his personal experience, both as a refugee and as Chief Executive of the Refugee and Migrant Centre, to appeal for empathy with those forced to make dangerous journeys. If we are committed to protecting the most vulnerable, he suggested, we need to accept that many will arrive in the UK independently, not just through resettlement schemes.

Professor Alexander Betts called for a refugee protection approach that includes cooperation with international efforts and use of development aid to support refugees in-country, but which also focuses on getting things right here in the UK.

That latter point was echoed by Dame Sarah Thornton, the UK’s independent anti-slavery commissioner, who aid that education and employment are vital for refugees and asylum seekers to achieve independence and integrate fully into the UK.

The importance of integration and contribution were also emphasised by Enver Solomon of the Refugee Council, who argued that we could look to Britain’s history to find lessons for the future of refugee protection. Seventy years since the UK signed the Refugee Convention, protecting refugees is woven into the fabric of this nation, he argued. To maintain that tradition we will need a system that is also compassionate, giving a fair hearing to people seeking refuge on UK soil, while also remaining effective and offering the public a sense of control.

Recordings of the keynote speech and both discussion panels are available on the Bright Blue youtube channel

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