The British people’s decision that the UK should leave the European Union in that historic referendum on 23 June 2016 has challenged politicians of all parties to map a way forward.
I believe that the referendum outcome must be acted upon – the UK must leave the European Union – and that we all need to start considering what UK policies we need post-Brexit.
One of the central issues, and a huge public concern, is the management of immigration. It affects our economy and labour market policies, our border controls and security and community life.
This publication, founded on detailed research by Open Europe, offers valuable insight into public attitudes to immigration. It is research we should take heed of and use to help shape a reasonable, fair policy on migration.
For some of the left or liberal wings of politics, addressing immigration policy has always been difficult. Aware that reducing or halting immigration has always been a siren call of some deeply unpleasant figures on the extreme right, they have shied away from it. And on the right, there is a body of opinion, certainly in the business community, that a ready supply of migrant workers helps to keep labour costs down, and provides for a more flexible and passive workforce. So elements of left and right have had their own reasons for sidestepping the question of immigration control.
Immigration is not easily separated from the UK’s economic needs or from public feelings about their identity. Immigration was one of the most significant concerns for voters in the 2010 and 2015 general elections. The failure of the major parties to address those concerns led to the rise of UKIP. Their presence challenge both Labour and the Conservatives in different ways.
I argued that for Labour to shy away from the questions and concerns raised by voters about immigration was an abdication of responsibility. What became very clear in the run up to the European Referendum, was that immigration would dominate public feeling. As YouGov pollster, Freddie Sayers, commented in April 2016: “A recent YouGov poll for ITN showed that 71% of people in the UK think that immigration over the past ten years has been too high – and that includes majorities of all political parties. Even 65% of Liberal Democrat voters – that most expansive, internationalist, Europhile group – think too many people are entering the country. If the coming referendum were only a decision on immigration, the Leave campaign would win by a landslide.”
This is just one reason that all parties would be wise to think ahead and consider future policy on migration. I believe that the UK, like many other countries, can agree a fair-minded, sensible policy on migration which accords with the best of British values of openness and tolerance.
The UK will require workers, students and visitors from abroad, for many years to come. The UK will also have many residents who choose to live abroad for part of their life, many in the European Union. So this issue requires balance and understanding, about people’s aspirations and about the needs of business.
This research shows the public understand this too. Their concern was not to end all immigration. But, by two to one, they support a fixed number of work permits being issued each year.
They recognise that migrants may need access to our NHS, but believe that benefits and the right to social housing should be earned.
The public also see a direct link between giving UK citizens the right skills to take jobs, and the need to import labour from abroad.
I believe the UK can reach a fair position, which controls migration, improves security at UK borders and reaches an amicable arrangement with the European Union 27. It is in our interests to do so.
I also have faith that we can agree a reasonable immigration policy that works for Britain, which the British people will support.
I therefore welcome this important, and challenging, research. I hope it encourages more of the debate we need on a topic that is central to the Brexit negotiations and life post-Brexit.
Rt Hon Caroline Flint MP
Labour Member for Don Valley