10 August 2018

Public must get a hearing on immigration too, not just business

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The CBI, in a new report Open and Controlled has set out its proposals for a new, post-Brexit immigration system, drawing on evidence from 129,000 firms across 18 industry sectors, writes Steve Ballinger.

The report calls for the failed net migration target to be dropped – a sensible move given how the repeated failures to meet the target have eroded public trust in the government’s ability to manage immigration competently and fairly.

Having consulted so extensively with business, the CBI makes the case for the economic benefits of immigration. It’s a welcome jump-start for the debate about what immigration system Britain needs after Brexit, which has been put on hold since the EU referendum two years ago. The CBI is right that the government needs to get on with it.

But shaping Britain’s immigration policy for the future must be based on more than consultation with business. Yes, immigration must work for the economy – but it needs the consent of the public too.

People do see the gains for the economy of skilled and student migration. Everyone agrees, too, that EU citizens already here must have their status guaranteed. The CBI notes EU nationals are increasingly nervous at the rising ‘no deal’ talk: a guarantee they will have the right to stay in all circumstances is urgent.

But people are worried about the scale of migration in lower-skilled work. They don’t think employers have got the balance right between training British workers and employing people from outside the UK. And business needs to get better at engaging with concerns about local impacts of immigration on public services and integration. This report places a welcome focus on contribution, and on addressing the local impacts of population change brought about by rapid immigration.

It’s good that the CBI recognises the public’s desire for changes to freedom of movement, but in seeking to retain much of the current system, its proposals look unlikely to go far enough. Voters see the referendum as a reset moment for immigration policy – so they are expecting bigger changes.

Our post-Brexit immigration system will need to win public support and restore confidence in how we manage immigration. That will require much greater engagement with what the public thinks and what it wants.

British Future, partnering with Hope not Hate, has spent the last 15 months conducting the National Conversation on Immigration, the biggest-ever public consultation on immigration, with 60 citizens’ panels covering every nation and region of the UK, together with an open online survey, stakeholder panels and new research by ICM. Its final report will be published next month.

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