14 October 2019

Is the Government on-point with an Australian-style immigration system?

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Today’s Queen’s Speech, setting out the Government’s proposed programme for this Parliament, may be rather more of a symbolic indicator of what Boris Johnson would like to do, if re-elected with a majority, than a programme of action, writes Steve Ballinger. It may not even pass a vote in the Commons. But it does offer some clues as to the direction his Government would like to take, if it has enough MPs to do it.

On immigration – where progress has stalled since the White Paper – that direction appears to be towards Australia. Home Secretary Priti Patel promised Conservative delegates at the party’s Manchester conference that she would end free movement and introduce an Australian-style immigration system, with the Telegraph subsequently reporting that the Australian government is advising Home Office officials. The Migration Advisory Committee is due to report back on plans for a points-based system in early 2020.

Today’s Queen’s speech background briefing from the Government, on the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill says one of the ‘main benefits’ of the Bill will be:

“Paving the way for a new points-based immigration system, which will be based on people’s skills and contributions to the UK, so that we attract the brightest and best people from the whole world following the UK’s departure from the EU.”

The “Australian points-based system” is a popular slogan that resonates with voters. When our National Conversation of Immigration held citizens’ panels in sixty towns and cities around the UK, the Australian system was mentioned in every meeting. Far fewer had heard of the UK Government’s (now abandoned) net migration target, its headline policy. Almost no-one knew that we already have a points-based immigration system, introduced in 2008 – though the UK version is more broad-brush than the Australian version, with less matching of job vacancies to migrants’ skills.

That underlines how a ‘points-based system’ is open to interpretation – a slogan as much as a system – and one which has been used by politicians ranging from Gordon Brown to Nigel Farage to advance quite different policies. For much of the public, though, the Australian immigration rules are seen as a shorthand for a controlled and selective migration policy, but one which does welcome migrants who meet its criteria and contribute to the UK economy.

For an issue like immigration, where most of the public don’t know much about UK policy,  people knew an awful lot about the Australian system. “They have to have qualifications, work experience, then everything gets rated up to a certain number of points,” said one participant in Leicester. “So if you’re not going to be able to contribute to what this country needs, then you won’t be able to come in.”

People know about it because they, or someone they know, has actually experienced it. “After I finished university I thought about going to Australia,” one man in Dumfries told our researchers. “To get into Australia, I needed to have so many pounds in my bank account. I needed to be educated to a certain degree. I had to have a driver’s licence with no points on it.”

Two million people born in Britain now live in Australia – almost twice as many as live in the rest of the EU. Hearing about friends and family going to Australia is the closest many people have got to an immigration system, except for those with a recent family history of migration to Britain.

They think of Australia’s migration rules as a selective policy that does let people in, because they know people who have gone there (or have been refused). And that chimes with what people do want from a British system – greater selectivity and control with an openness to skills. “We want doctors, we need teachers, we need qualified skilled professionals and if you can offer those skills to this country, then come on in,” we were told in Southampton.

Turning this into a post-Brexit immigration policy that works for the UK, however, is not simply a question of cut-and-pasting an email from the Home Office’s new friends in Canberra. The UK is not Australia: our geography, our demography and our trade relationships are quite different.  Net migration to Australia is 260,000 a year in a country with a population of just 19 million people – proportionately triple the rate in the UK. And the points-based system is about people coming to work: a migration system must also honour Britain’s commitments to protect refugees, and enable its citizens to live here with their spouse if they fall in love with someone born in another country.

But support for some kind of Australian-style approach does suggest a blueprint for an immigration system that voters could trust, something we badly need. ICM polling for the National Conversation on Immigration found that only 15% of people feel the Government has managed immigration competently and fairly; and just 17% trust the Government to tell the truth about immigration. Theresa May’s failed net migration target undermined public confidence further by making a promise it could not keep.

People are ‘balancers’ on immigration, wanting to secure its benefits and manage its pressures. There is consensus, across party and referendum divides, for being open to skilled, student and post-graduate migration – and indeed to much lower-skilled migration too in sectors where we clearly need more workers, such as in construction and care homes. A system modelled on Australian lines could help achieve that – while also offering voters the control, over who can come to work in the UK, that they also prefer.

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