Next steps to resolve immigration crisis: a public inquiry and a public discussion about a rights-based approach to policy

Next steps to resolve immigration crisis: a public inquiry and a public discussion about a rights-based approach to policy

Virtually all the early demands for change that issued out of a public shocked to learn what has been going on with the Windrush generation scandal seem to have been met by a panicked Home Office.

An emergency task force to resolve the issue, free application procedures, a promise of compensation, and even full British passports are, we are told, to be made available to a group of people who yesterday were being fired from the jobs, made homeless, refused healthcare, and even detained and threatened with the prospect of deportation.

Immigrant rights groups have received the support of the opposition parties in Parliament for their call for a public inquiry into the way the Home Office has handled this affair.  What is needed is a judge-led examination of the entirety of the hostile environment policies which have driven what can only be described as the persecution of this group of Commonwealth citizens.

Independence critical

It is important that any such inquiry should have distance from the Parliamentary arena.  Some might feel that the Home Affairs Select Committee has done a good enough job with its recent examination of Home Secretary Amber Rudd, and its series of highly critical reports on immigration policy. The drawback here is that government ministers have one last fall-back position they can use to deflect the most severe criticism: your party tried to do pretty much the same thing when it was in power.

There is no getting away from the truth of this fact. The first ‘hostile environment’ legislation can be traced backed to Tory immigration act in the 1990s, which ended support for asylum seekers through mainstream social security systems and also imposed on employers the duty to check the immigration status of prospective employees. But New Labour was ruthless in following up on these early initiatives by ramping up the level of civil penalties imposed on employers who were inadvertently taking on people with proper papers and increasing the powers of enforcement officials to detain and deport people.

Root-and-branch review needed

It seems clear that the Tories are going to continue back-peddling to cover their mistakes over the Windrush generation and more concessions are there to be squeezed from them on this issue.  The long-delayed review of immigration policy, promised over a year ago as the basis of a post-Brexit control system, will probably have to be looked at all over again to make see if car-crashes of the kind we have seen in the past few weeks can be avoided.  The issue for advocates of the rights of migrants however has to be more than just pushing for the next concession, and instead look towards what needs to be done to build the assurance of a secure status and the proper standard to social justice into immigration policy.

The idea of a rights-based approach to immigration policy has been a constant subject for discussion among people required to think a little more deeply into the issues than most politicians – and even ministers responsible for administering controls – seem to have time for.  Its potential for providing an alternative to current systems, in which power is exercised in so arbitrary a fashion as to be almost exempt from the rule of law – was flagged up in a blog published by Migrants’ Rights Network earlier this year.

Rather than be allowed to pass as a lofty but probably unrealistic ideal for the way immigration policy should operate, we really need to find ways to root its central propositions into the public conversation currently underway.

Principles for a rights-based approach

First and foremost, immigrants need to be acknowledged people with an inalienable right to fairness and justice in all their dealing with national authorities.  The New York Declaration for Migrants and Refugees, adopted in 2016, sets out nine ‘guiding principles’ for what it calls a ‘people-centred approach’ which need thorough discussion as to how they can be applied in the UK context, particularly as we move towards Brexit.

The Windrush generation affair has told us that we need policies which rigorously disavow racism of both the direct and ‘unwitting’ institutional kinds. The ‘guilty until proven innocent’ assumptions that allowed people to be stripped of their right to work, to receive social security and healthcare, to have access to rented accommodation, the right to drive a vehicle or run a bank account, has to be ended.  The presumption behind all immigration policy should be that the people who are subject to its authority are on a route that leads, in reasonable time, to settlement and full citizenship.  At all times they should have the assurance of equality of treatment with citizens in all matters that concern their essential health, welfare and well-being.

There is a limit to the usefulness of the pop-up remedies to the injustices revealed over the past few weeks.  It is good that the Windrush generation people have moved to rapidly from fear of deportation to the grant of full citizenship in such a short space of time.  But we can only be assured that the system has been fire-proofed from such violations of natural justice if we now start to move in the direction of a consciously thought-out, rights-based approach to immigration policy.  Let’s see what we can do to get that conversation started.

The remedy Commonwealth citizens need – not ‘amnesty’ but compensation!

The remedy Commonwealth citizens need – not ‘amnesty’ but compensation!

The news media has finally come alive to the fact that grave injustices are being done to a group of people who have lived, worked, paid taxes, raised families, etc, etc for the last forty years or so and who now find their status as legally settled persons under challenge from NHS bureaucrats, private sector landlords, employers, bank officials, and the DVLA.  Even worse, some of them are being banged up in detention centres and threatened with deportation.

We are, of course, talking about the citizens of Commonwealth countries who were settled in the UK before the all-important 1971 Immigration Act came into force.  This piece of legislation granted the status of permanent resident of the UK to these people and with it the assurance they could go about their lives on a basis which approximated to British citizenship with a few exceptions, until the day they die.  For more on the legal background to this see Nick Nason’s excellent blog at the Free Movement blogspot.

What we now know is that the people who benefited from this status all these years ago are now in the cross-hairs of the Home Office’s efforts to track down people in an irregular position to ramp up immigration enforcement statistics.  To accomplish this task the authorities have rolled out a ‘hostile environment’ programme which requires all sorts of third parties – employers, landlords, hospitals, high street banks, police officers checking driving licenses – to inquire into the immigration status of anyone they come across during the course of their business.  This will often mean checking with the Home Office’s Visas and Immigration department to see what information they hold on the person being dealt with.

Victims, victims, victims….

If this happens to you, welcome to a whole world of pain.  The Visas and Immigration people have only very incomplete records of people who are legally resident in the country and an inquiry that concerns someone who arrived in 1966 as an infant, often on her mother’s passport, will not show up on any database as showing someone entitled to be here.  This triggers a reaction in which the person is refused the service they have applied for on the grounds that they have not established that they are legally present in the country.

Being refused a job you have applied for, or being told by your landlord that you must quit the premises is bad enough, but it is made even worse by the initiation of investigations by Home Office officials about your position which can, and has, led to people being arrested, detained, and even deported.

Some of the victims have received coverage in the press in recent weeks.  There is Sarah O’Connor for example, who arrived in the UK with her mother at the age of six.  After losing a job she had held for 16 years she applied for Jobs Seekers Allowance and was challenged by the Benefits Agency to prove she was here with a legal immigration status.  Documents showing she had been to school in England, had worked and paid taxes all her life, and much else are deemed unsatisfactory.  Not only was she refused unemployment benefits she has also been told she cannot work in the UK.  Now heavily in debt because of this enforced lay off she now lives in fear, after 51 years residence, of a knock on the door which will signal the start of a deportation process back to a country she hasn’t seen since she was a toddler.

Or Paulette Wilson, a 61 year old grandmother who spent a week in Yarl’s Wood detention centre under threat of deportation for not having documents relating to her entry into the country, way back in 1968, when she was aged 10. Or Renford MacIntyre, a 64-year old living in the UK since 1968, and now made homeless, sleeping on a sofa in an industrial unit, because he doesn’t have the papers the authorities now say they need.

We’ve got just the form for you!

The Home Office has taken a significant step in acknowledging the distress that their hostile environment regulations are now causing people with the legal right of residence but are without the papers they claim are now needed to prove they meet the increasingly exacting standards of the immigration control system.  They excuse themselves for the distress being caused to people in this situation by saying the measures are ‘proportionate’ and justified by what they call the need to ensure that immigration is rigorously controlled.  They claim that people who do not have the documents needed to prove their legal status can apply for a “no-time-limit” biometric identity card which provide the evidence which employers, landlords, banks, the benefits agency, the NHS, etc, now require from people.

Sounds reasonable, but what is actually involved in applying for a biometric card?  The Home Office has set this out in a guidance note for Undocumented Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK which appeared on their website on 13 April.

The guidance links to the application form for the no-time-limit biometric card, which turns out to be 21-pages long and which requires that “documents proving identity” and “evidence of continuous residence in the UK throughout all of the years since initial entry be provided.  An experienced legal advisor will have a good idea what that might be – school attendance records, registrations with GPs, national insurance contributions, landlord testimonials, and maybe letters from church ministers to cover any period when the person was in the UK but not actively working, for whatever reason.  Bear in mind that this is to cover a period that might be as long as 50 years – may be more – so expect to find that schools attended decades ago might no longer be in existence, GP surgeries closed and doctors deceased.

It is no wonder the Home Office guidance recommends that anyone contemplating the action gets advice from a qualified legal expert.  It might have mentioned there is no legal aid for this type of work and lawyers willing to take the work on a private basis are increasingly hard to find.  But don’t despair, a solicitor will eventually be found at the right price, though it is likely you, won’t be able to afford it….

The Home Office for the application itself is £229 – more if dependent family members are included.  All-in-all I wouldn’t expect to be able to complete the whole application package, obtain the documentary evidence needed, and pay for the help from an advisor for much less than £1,000.

Remember that the people who find themselves have to make this application are likely to be in this position because someone has refused them a vital service, and this will probably have triggered a chain of events which has led to them being dismissed from a job and unable to get one, refused benefits, and heavily in debt through efforts to survive without an income.  In these circumstances £1,000 is not just a large sum of money – it is an impossibly large sum of money.

Compassion….?

In the meantime the Caribbean High Commissions and Church of England bishops have issued a call for compassion from the Home Office and a please for special help to get the problems caused to this group of residents sorted out.  Expect the Home Office to be slow to grant this.  The idea of an expedited application procedure with lower evidential requirements will send shivers down the spines of Home Office honchos who will fear an avalanche of applications coming in from people with claims they will be inclined to see as dubious to say the least.

Commonwealth citizen well-wishers are also on the scene, using on-line petitions to raise a call for an ‘amnesty’ for anyone arriving the UK between 1948 and 1971. Ignore for a moment the fact that the cut-off date for one group is actually 1 January 1973, and also that a large group of people equally the victims of the ‘show-us-your-papers’ culture arrived as minors after this later date, and we have to ask whether this idea of an amnesty is likely to provide a remedy.

Firstly, amnesties are usually requested by people who have committed some sort of wrong in the past and who wish to be forgiven for their transgressions.  What have these Commonwealth citizens done wrong?  They established a legal right to be here at the time they entered and throughout all the long years of their residence have satisfied anyone who needed satisfaction – including official government departments – that they are lawfully settled.  The burden of proof should surely be reversed.  Instead of people in these circumstances showing that they are legally resident, and it being assumed that until they do so they are not, it would be simple to require the Home Office to positively state its reasons for believing that a person is not lawfully resident and set out their reasons for holding to this belief.  In the absence of this evidence supporting this accusation the person concerned ought to be accepted as a lawful resident.

In place of amnesty, compensation….

Instead of ‘compassion’ and ‘amnesty’ supporters of the rights of tis group of long-settled migrants should be calling the government to account for its grossly disproportionate action in exposing them to them to the callousness of the hostile environment.  The fact that so many victims of these measures have the same characteristics – i.e. the children of people from the countries of the Caribbean – then the question of whether the policy is institutionally racist ought to be tested in the courts.

The McPherson ruling on what constitutes institutional racism sets out the real frame of reference by which we judge the Home Office’s actions in these matters. As the judge set in his report on the failings of the Metropolitan Police into the death of Stephen Lawrence:

“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin […] [which] can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.” 

The ‘professional service’ that legally-resident Commonwealth citizens require from the Home Office is one that says the evidence of a lifetime of residence, work and compliance with the law in the UK ought to be accepted without the imposition of demands for proofs which are onerous, burdensome, and excessively expensive. When this evidence is callously discounted, causing immense hardship and fear to an individual, then what is needed is not an amnesty, but compensation, and lots of it.  Who’s going to start a petition demanding that?

 

1968: The year it all went horribly wrong for immigration policy

1968: The year it all went horribly wrong for immigration policy

The UK will be marking two significant anniversaries with regard to the history of immigration policy during the course of 2018, neither of which give any cause for rejoicing.

In chronological terms, the first of these occurred on 1 March, which marks 50 years since Royal Assent was given to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1968.

This was the second piece of legislation addressing the issue of the migration of people from the countries of the former British empire, the now Commonwealth, who once had the right to freely enter the United Kingdom to take work and settle.  The first Act, passed in 1962, had ended this open door policy and had made Commonwealth citizens the subject of immigration control.

The 1968 legislation is best known for its effect in stripping a group of people who had the status of British citizen (at that point known as ‘Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies’) of the right to the UK with exemption from immigration control.  The target groups were people primarily from the countries of the Indian subcontinent who had migrated at the time of British colonial rule to a group of countries in East Africa to serve roles in railway construction, trading, administration and as civil service officials in the new countries.

As the East African colonies became independent states during the course of the 1960s the issue of the status of these people became ambiguous.  The main countries concerned – Kenya, Malawi and Uganda – adopted constitutions which automatically awarded citizenship to people considered to be native African but withheld it from those who, even though long-settled and even born in the country concerned, were of south Asian ethnicity.  Most in this category retained the status of Citizen of the UK and Colonies, which until then had been identical to that held by a person born on the territory of the island of Great Britain and the province of Northern Ireland.

The 1968 Act was famously rushed through all the stages of Parliamentary procedure in 48 hours by a Labour government keen to appease feelings of antipathy towards these ethnically south Asian British citizens who were beginning to exercise their right to come to Britain in response to the ‘Africanisation’ policies being pursued by the governments in the countries in which they had been residing.  This meant imposing immigration controls on people who had an indisputable claim to be citizens of the United Kingdom because of, as it was put at the time, their service to the ‘mother country’. It achieved this through the use of a cynical device which aimed to distinguish between different types of British citizen based on the invention of a concept of ‘patriality’.

The patriality scam

Patriality referred to the route by which a British citizen had acquired that status.  Patrial British citizens were usually people who had the right to a UK passport because they were either born (or naturalised) in the UK, or, if born outside the UK, it was to a parent who were themselves born in the UK, or otherwise naturalised in the UK at the time of the person’s birth.

The category of non-patrial citizen referred to people who had the status of Citizen of the UK and Colonies but had acquired this through a connect with a British colony or protectorate rather than the ‘homeland’ territory of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  The significance of all this was that the vast majority of patrial British citizens were white, whilst their non-patrial counterparts were brown.  By making this distinction between two groups the UK government had enshrined a racially discriminatory principle, not just into law, but into an area of law which is considered by be fundamental to the constitution of all law and governance itself.

The 1968 Act revealed attitudes in the ruling political circles which showed that the views of Conservatives and Labour figures differed very little when it came to the position of immigration.  The cabinet minister and political diarist, Richard Crossman noted that only one Labour minister,  the Commonwealth minister George Thomas, objected to the proposed legislation on the grounds that “would in effect discriminate against the Asians from East Africa because of their colour.” Thomas complained that, “This would contradict all that we had said on the subject.”  The Labour Home Secretary, and later prime minister, James Callaghan, had no truck with this.  Crossman noted in his diary that, “Jim arrived with the air of a man whose mind was made up. He wasn’t going to tolerate any of this bloody liberalism.”

The Commonwealth Immigration Act was now in place.  Though modified by the passing of a further Immigration Act in 1971, the principle that immigration law could discriminate against people on the basis of their ethnicity, was as solid as a rock, and that this continued to apply to groups of black and Asian citizens who had other attributes of British citizenship.

It might have been the case that British Labour politicians felt justified in bringing racially discriminatory principles into the heart of immigration and nationality law because the public debate at that time had become so polarised around the issue of ‘coloured immigration’ that some sort of concession of the patriality type had become necessary. Some no doubt took the view that once the poison had been drained then the famed British tolerance would begin to kick in and new standards of justice applied to the newcomers. In fact, rather than contain and reduce the problem of racist antagonism to immigration, the 1968 Act only increased the intensity of the public appetite for more measures of this type.

Anniversary number two: ‘Rivers of Blood’

This is the point where we have to mention the second anniversary to be marked during the course of the current year: that of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.

The former Conservative minister for health and, at the point of making the speech, opposition spokesperson on defence, delivered this most notorious contribution to the public discussion on 20 April 1968 to a meeting of members of his party in Birmingham. Whilst the controversies around the Commonwealth Immigrants Act raged on he acted to maintain heat around the subject with a dose of rhetoric that was shocking for the explicit racism of its tone. In his delivery he predicted that “In this country 15 or 20 years time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” He claimed that he was giving voice to “the decent, ordinary fellow Englishman, who in broad daylight in my own town says to me, his Member of Parliament, that his country will not be worth living in for his children.”

The speech’s language worked hard to portray “ordinary English people” as a “persecuted minority”, beset by “grinning  piccaninnies” and steadily being deprived of hospital beds,  places at local schools, homes and access to opportunities for employment in decent jobs. In setting out this narrative Powell aimed to build on the recent achievements of the right wing in the form of the two Commonwealth Immigrant Acts and to extend this further by measures that would bring about the wholesale repatriation of the resident ‘coloured’ community.

In its own terms the speech was a sinister but brilliant inter-weaving of anecdotes and supposed facts about the significant challenges that exist during times of rapid social change but set firmly within the context of a profoundly racist view of the world.  He opined that the “marked physical differences, especially of colour” inevitably made integration a difficult prospect that only a portion of the newcomers would be able to accomplish. The rest, giving the Indian Sikh community as an example, would insist on “communal rights” that would lead to a fragmentation of British society.

Powell threw out the challenge to his audiences to escape the fate that was portended by immigration.  Though his own chronic aloofness from the people on whose behalf he claimed to speak prevented him from playing the role of a genuine leader of a populist Powellite movement, the Rivers of Blood and other speeches given during these fateful months did spark an insurgency in support of the demand for repatriation which made an impact on sections of the trade union movement.  It also encouraging a revival of the hard-line fascist right wing under the banner of the National Front movement which worked to stir up antagonism against black communities right up until the mid-1970s.

Hardwired principles

The 1960s appear as crucible years for the forging of immigration policy and they have continued to have their effect until the present time.  The principles that were hammered out made it legitimate to draft new laws and policies in accordance with populist, anti-immigrant moods.  A ratchet effect operated that held in place the restrictions on rights that had been conceded to the waves of xenophobia across the years and held this as the starting point for the next wave of measures considered necessary to address sets of supposed crises dealing with, depending on the times, a family reunion, refugees, or, most recently, migrant workers. Liberals argue that such concessions are necessary to ‘steady the ship’ and signal to insecure citizens that the elites understand their anxieties.  But this comes at the high price of forever stripping away fresh layers of what were once considered to be the rights due to any person living a reasonable life and causing no harm to any fellow resident.

The legacy of the legislation and the political debates of these earlier decades is the ‘hostile environment’ which embraces all immigrants – and now no longer just those who can be distinguished by their colour.  There are hopefully signs that at long last social movements are coming into existence which acknowledge the fact that you can go so far in foreclosing on the rights of immigrants that you reach the point that the civil and human rights of all citizens are in jeopardy.  We reached that point some decades ago. As younger voices begin to be raised against immigration injustices there are signs that informed, educated public opinion is finally moving, but still at a rate that is rather slower than what is needed.

New Labour Campaign for Free Movement is a great start that needs to be built on

New Labour Campaign for Free Movement is a great start that needs to be built on

The news that a Labour Campaign for Free Movement has been ushered into existence is to be heartily welcomed.  The website for the campaign went live at the end of this week and managed to get a fair bit of coverage in the media, with reports worth noting in the Guardian and the Independent.

The campaign has begun with a statement setting out the core argument as to why the Labour Party should be speaking up in defence of the freedom of movement which is in danger of being lost because of Brexit.  After setting out the reasons why a progressive, leftist party should repudiate attempts to scapegoat immigrants as the cause of the present-day crisis the statement goes on to say:

A system of free movement is the best way to protect and advance the interests of all workers, by giving everyone the right to work legally, join a union and stand up to their boss without fear of deportation or destitution. Curtailing those rights, or limiting migrants’ access to public services and benefits, will make it easier for unscrupulous employers to hyper-exploit migrant labour, which in turn undermines the rights and conditions of all workers.

In other words, by making migration a right to freedom of movement we create the conditions where newcomers are able to stand up for themselves in circumstances where they would otherwise be vulnerable to discrimination and exploitation.  Much needs to be done to make trade unions into organisations that truly welcome people who are still finding their feet in the UK.  But by working to end the threat of arrest and deportation for immigration status reasons will increase opportunities that workplace organisers to build up a strong membership amongst those who most need the protection of industrial organisation.

Migration without rights?

This is particularly so at a time when just about everyone, including many people who were prominent in the Leave movement, are now agreeing that immigration is going to continue at high volume after the date when the UK formally exits the EU.  The report that Home Secretary Amber Rudd has commissioned from the Migration Advisory Committee, as I argued in my blog last week, seems designed to provide employers with a stellar platform in which they can set out their arguments why they should continue to have access to the valuable resource which migrant labour provides to the UK labour market.

The problem is that in all these versions migrant workers from the EU are to be stripped of the rights to equality of treatment, protection against discrimination, and access to the social security system which current exists under the provisions of the European treaties.  Without these rights EU citizen migrants will be deprived of the leverage they need to resist employers who wish to push their earnings down to minimum wage levels and below.  The need to get prior approval from the Home Office for taking a job will lead to greater risks of deportation in the event that employers seek to deal with protesting employees by dismissing them and thereby cancelling their residence permits.

The Labour Party and the trade union movement ought to be speaking up much more clearly to say they oppose increasing the levels vulnerability to exploitation which exist across workforces in this age of ultra-flexible gig employment and zero-hour wage contracts.  Ending all the rights associated with free movement would multiple these risks and entrench the worst practices of the modern-day labour market even more deeply in the UK economy.

Rights for non-EU migrants too.

More than that – and this a point that the new Labour campaign can be expected to take up and develop – we should be prepared not only to defend existing free movement rights, but also raise the question of why these are not being extended to people from outside the UK who are filling vital vacancies in scores of industries.

This is already being raised by groups of ‘third country’ migrant workers already.  Domestic workers, amongst whom nationalities like Filipino, Indian, Indonesian and groups of Africans predominate, have been demanding a visa specially tailored to their circumstances, giving them greater security and the right to change jobs when it is on their interests to do so.  The website of the campaign group Justice for Domestic Workers gives more details of the fight that is being waged for these rights.

The appearance of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement is a really encouraging start for a programme of work which we must hope will win the support of tens of thousands of party members and trade unionists and put some backbone into the stance of the leadership of the party, which many view as disappointing on this issue.  Within hours of the campaign being launched a further 400 people had come forward to ask for their names to go onto the already long list of people who backed the founding statement.  It’s a great beginning – let’s build on it!

If you are a member of the Labour Party or an affiliated organisation and wold like to support this new campaign, visit its website and sign-up to the launch statement.

Amber Rudd’s MAC inquiry:  What for and why so late?

Amber Rudd’s MAC inquiry: What for and why so late?

There is much bewilderment at Amber Rudd’s announcement yesterday that she has commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to come up with evidence on the needs of the UK for migrants, reporting back at what seems to be the late date of September 2018.  Why so late?  Article 50 negotiations have us on schedule for being out the EU by the end of March 2019.  Is it really the case that the UK will only have six months to scramble for its replacement for the current system of freedom of movement?

One of the complaints, made most loudly by Labour’s Yvette Cooper, is that if the Conservatives were so keen to see immigration policy established on a firm evidence-base they would have gone to the MAC at a much early date to ensure that every minute of the processes of leaving the EU was put to good use in drafting a spanking new, entirely British immigration policy.  But the deeper truth concerns the claims governments make for ‘evidence-based’ policy and why this itself is subject to political contingencies which allows it to be turned on and off as the circumstances require.

Think back to September 2000 when the then immigration minister, Barbara Roche, made a famous speech announcing she was ditching prejudice to ensure that the management of the movement of people would henceforth be based on objective facts.Roche’s speech did not bring to an end the deeply entrenched view that foreign immigrants have a tendency to being trouble for British society, but it did mean that for a while at least this was checked by considerations of their value to economy that was finding labour power an ever-scarcer commodity.  The Treasury had more than one eye on the ‘bottlenecks’ caused by the shortage of workers that it saw building up across crucial sectors and it accordingly played an important role in opening up the jobs market to nationals of the eight accession countries that joined the EU in 2004.

Accession country immigration

Objective appraisal of the economic consequences strongly supports the view that this was not the foolish move that many have subsequently claimed.  Yes, large numbers came to the country after that date, but the vast majority were rapidly absorbed into a flexible labour market which was driving GDP growth rates along at the cracking rate of around 2.7% per annum.  Claims that they were responsible for creating a low wage economy were belied by the evidence which showed that the slump in the wages structure had its roots back in the 1980s, arising from the decimation of employment in manufacturing and the subsequent expansion of the service sector.  In case anyone missed the point, the 1980s were long years of zero net migration.  Migrants, in the main, merely slotted into a wages structure that had been created years before, and allowed the businesses that had been established on these principles to prosper as never before.

If the economic facts of large-scale inward migration were not fatal to the ambition for ‘evidenced-based policy’, something else was around that did for it.  The volume of newcomers clearly rattled large sections of the population who took to wondering why so much Polish was being spoken on the high streets.  This in itself is not a question that ought to be regarded as surprising, but it was the total hash made by politicians – particularly those on the centre left – in their stumbling efforts to answer it that moved the balance of public opinion more firmly in the direction of xenophobic anxiety.  Narratives of controls as being ‘not fit for purpose’, advanced as much by Labour Home Secretaries as editorials in the Sun or Mail, put the political elites as much as the average citizen in panic mode and the two forces became mutually reinforcing.

So ‘evidence-based policy’ was ditched in favour of spurious targets to ‘bring down net migration to the tens of thousands’ on one side of the divide, and the mass manufacturing to red mugs with the slogan ‘control immigration’ on the other.  Not very edifying.  And as long as the debate about immigration was subordinate to higher priorities, like getting Britain out the EU, or even just being elected to government, then the spinning of fantasy policies could go ahead without any sense that they needed to have at least some relationship of objective circumstances.

The referendum

Though there has been quite a log tail in which nonsense policies have continued to have their advocates, the referendum result has finally brought this phase of the great public conversation on immigration to an end.  The sheer necessity to avoid a catastrophic collapse of businesses across important sectors of the economy has meant that even a Conservative Home Secretary has had to thrash around for some sort of solid rock to cling to.  Where was that little committee we had set up to give us a prop for the fiddly bits of our policies?  Ah yes – the Migration Advisory Committee:  welcome gentlemen, and give us a hand in getting out of this rather dangerous place.

Okay – so that’s the reason why Rudd has now turned to a group of eminent scholars with long years at looking at labour markets behind them to get some sense of the pitfalls immediately ahead and what might be done to avoid them.  But why the late date for the report?

To answer this we need to project ahead to where we can expect to be with Brexit negotiations towards the back end of next year.  It will not be pretty.  So many things are likely to be unresolved and a real sense of panic – already present in the discussion – will be rampant.  The truly difficult stuff over access to the single market, customs union, tariffs and all that will be confusing the British public rather than mobilising them into action on the streets, so the way will still be open to deals on transitional arrangements or whatever to handle those.  But immigration?  If the people who really care about this issue and thought that Brexit would be the way out are not appeased then the Tory party could be seeing revolts across its ranks that will be savage in their effect.

MAC to the rescue

There are few bright lights in this scenario that a Home Secretary can use to guide her way through this mess, and particularly not for one who not-so-secretly believes Brexit is an act of insanity.  The best that can be hoped for is that, so late in the day, someone will step into an impossibly heated argument about the immigration policy the country needs with a set of proposals that appear to address the objective facts of the situation and can be presented as politically non-partisan.

If this is the function that the MAC report is expected to play then we have the complete understanding why Rudd wants its finding to come out so close to the end of Article 50 negotiations.  She knows that its recommendations will be scrutinised and picked-over by Brexiteers with a closeness that will not apply to any other issue on the ‘leave’ agenda.  Back-sliding on the promise to take back control of our borders will feel like a far worse betrayal than anything to do with customs tariffs or the single market.  A Home Secretary who wants to stay ahead of the game will want to limit the time that opponents of MAC’s recommendations will have to mobilise against them should they be in a direction which favours a relatively liberal immigration regime in which the lineaments of freedom of movement can still be recognised.

So that’s the plan.  The eminences of the MAC will have around 14 months to prepare a report that is dense with statistics and case studies that basically make the business case for fairly open borders. It will be published with a fanfare of approval from the CEOs of transnational corporations as well as their smaller counterparts representing sections like tourism, social care, food production and construction.  The vice-chancellors of the grandest universities will be there to cheer the result, and the financial press will deliver its judgement that disaster has been averted.

The six months remaining to the die-hard Brexiteers will not be sufficient to undo this consensus and they will have to fall back on a plan B which will involve monitoring the quarterly immigration statistics to see whether there has been any great reduction in net migration.  The controversy will die down for the time being and some sort of policy to handle post-Brexit immigration in the period after March 2019 will be rolled out in a fairly brief Act of Parliament, which might even get the consent of all the parties.

What’s not to like about this cunning plan?  If you are at the helm of a business of any shape or form it looks like a genius stroke.  Politicians across the centre-left and centre-right part of the spectrum will welcome the heat being drawn from what has always been a rancorous debate.  The dissenters will be the hard-line anti-immigrant people who would pay any price in terms of economic slow-down if only it meant less foreigners speaking their babble on our public transport, and of course the migrants, who will have seen the rights they currently have vanish in the wash.

That last point, for me, is a good reason to watch the MAC inquiry very closely over the next year.  The inquiry was not set up for this purpose, but we ought to be thinking of ways to get it to consider the cost of diminishing the rights of this group of migrants, which can be expect to be experienced in a number of ways, from an increase in exploitation through to the withdrawal of this group of workers from the labour force. The positive side of the EU’s freedom of movement policies – which have provided for rights to equality of treatment, security of residence, opportunities for family reunion and protection from discrimination – are too important to be traded away in order to keep the querulous native British masses in their place.

The speech Jeremy Corbyn should make at the start of Brexit negotiations

The speech Jeremy Corbyn should make at the start of Brexit negotiations

Jezza’s stunning advance in the election campaign has placed him in a commanding position to dictate the terms of the political agenda.  What he says and does during the course of the Brexit negotiations is his next big challenge.

It is time to tackle the ambiguity around some of the positions that have come out from his front bench over the course of the last few months.  He should aim to give real heart to Labour’s new and returning supporters by combining his anti-austerity message with the a clear statement of support for the important right of freedom of movement.

Here’s my take on the speech he should give to declare his intention to really shift the debate on Brexit.

Press release

Date: (Before time runs out…)

Labour will not make the ending of free movement a pre-condition for the best deal on Brexit

“The Labour Party, like everyone else, has been facing up to the challenges that will confront our country as the business of negotiating our departure from the European Union gets underway.

“We have made it clear that we will fight for a Brexit that protects jobs and the public services which together make up the standard of life of our citizens, and also reinforce the sense that we live in communities in which everyone works for each other.

“How do we now plan for our exit of the EU in a way which will not do damage to all the things we value in our society, as well as the degree of prosperity we have achieved from being a member of the world’s largest trading bloc?”

Positive benefits

“Labour has always recognised that immigration has been a big part of the positive side of life in Britain, helping to strengthen the country by bringing in skills and an aptitude for work which we have always seen from newcomers, from the Huguenots, to the post-war Commonwealth citizens, right through to the EU nationals of today: all those who have made their homes here. 

“Contrary to the claims of migration’s opponents, immigration has helped maintained the buoyancy of the UK economy, particularly in recent very challenging years, helping hundreds of thousands of businesses remain viable so that they can support the high levels of employment we have enjoyed, even during the worst years of the downturn.

“Claims are made that it has depressed wage levels.  Yet we know these have been held back most severely in parts of the country where immigration not taken place on any large scale.  The over-long, too-weak recovery from the Great Recession of 2008-12 is the most obvious reason why wage earners in Britain are experiencing real pressure on their stand of living.

“It is also said that immigrants are responsible for the declining state of our public services, with healthcare and education being cited as examples.

“I will now say that Labour categorically refutes this accusation.  As we now know from reports of a 96% fall in the number of nurses from the EU countries being recruited to work in the NHS, and that fact that one-third of those already here are considering returning abroad because of the uncertainty that has been created about their long-term residents’ rights, the real danger lies in fact that immigration will cease to bring these much-needed workers into our hospitals and clinics.

“The same can be said about our schools and universities.  In parts of the country which have received most immigrants in recent times we have seen educational standards rising to their highest points.  One in six of our school teachers across the UK were born in other countries.  The government has been failing to meet targets to recruit and retain teachers from domestic sources for several years now, and this has resulted in higher recruitment of much-valued entrants into the profession from abroad”.

Concerns of business and the trade unions

“I have had the opportunity to travel the length and breadth of the country since my election as Labour leader in 2015.  During this time I have spoken to the owners of businesses operating in IT and the creative industries, social care, hospitality, construction, food production and many others, as well the people running our great public services.  They all tell me that Britain must remain an open and friendly place for workers from other countries if they are to continue to provide opportunities for decent jobs both for the newcomers and, crucially, for those UK-born citizens who continue to benefit from an economy generating work for all.

“I have spoken to the trade unions and am aware of their concerns about the higher risks of exploitation that have emerged in recent times as a result of poor regulation of the jobs market and, in some instances, because of EU measures regarding the agencies and the posting of overseas staff. 

“We understand these concerns and we are determined to address them.  A Labour government will favour industry-wide collective bargaining.  The agreed rate for the job will apply to all, whether UK citizen or newly-arrived migrant worker on a temporary contract.  There will be no need to fear the under-cutting of agreed wage rates and employment conditions once these measures are in place.”

Regional policies with the powers to deal with impacts

“People have said that there has not been a problem with migration as such, but rather with the fact that there has been too much over too short a period of time.  Yet even this is contradicted by the fact that the parts of the country with some of the highest levels of newcomers are reporting the least negative views about the impacts of migration. 

“We accept that there are places where, because industries have expanded in relatively short periods of time, that the arrival of workers to fill the job vacancies has brought about stresses and strains.  Labour will deal with this by instigating regional planning policies which ensure that economic growth that brings in new workers will go hand-in-hand with investment in housing, publics services, including healthcare, schools and public transport.  We will ensure that local government in these districts will be sufficiently well-resourced to support community inclusion programmes, including English language classes and activities to promote contact and bridge-building across communities.”

Social justice and fairness

“Labour’s approach to immigration is part and parcel of our approach to social justice and human rights.  I have spoken of workers and wage-earners up until now because we know that is the biggest reason why people come to Britain.  But we reject the idea that people can be reduced to commodities, to be used and discarded when their work is done. 

“Our politics for immigration include support for the families that the newcomers will be raising.  When action and policies are needed on our part to help redress hardship and suffering, particularly that which has been experienced by refugees, migrants with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups, then Labour will ensure that an active and energised civil society is in a position to provide it.

 “We are also aware that the opportunity to move beyond borders is a vital part of the outlook of a rising generation of young people who are now making their impression on the shape and direction of our democratic politics.  They will not forgive us if the advantages that have been enjoyed by their parents and grandparents, to live, study, work and settle in other places are withheld from them.  They will not be by any Labour government.

“Labour is confident in its firm view that migration has and will continue to benefit us all.  We expect that it will play a part in the plans of businesses and communities to forge ahead in the future.  We see no issues on the agenda that cannot be addressed by a positive and inclusive approach.  We believe that British citizens are reaching out for this future and this viewpoint becomes a majority as we move into the millennial generation.

“It is for this reason that I can say, as negotiations begin with our European friends for the best possible Brexit deal, that Labour will not make an end to the freedom of movement that has prevailed for so long a pre-condition for any deal which will carry us forward into our future partnership.

“There is much to consider in the matters of our future relationship with the single market and the customs union, but on this point it should be clear: freedom of movement between our countries can and should be preserved into the post-Brexit future!”  

Memo to Keir Starmer:  Now is NOT the time to insist that an end to free movement is an essential part of a Brexit deal.

Memo to Keir Starmer: Now is NOT the time to insist that an end to free movement is an essential part of a Brexit deal.

I’ve just been listening to Keir Starmer on BBC World At One talking about Labour’s position on Brexit. It seems that he is clinging to the view that an end to freedom of movement must be part of that package. It is ironic that this view is being maintained in the face of the fact that Labour’s advance was secured by young voters who think that the right to move freely across borders is a very good thing.

It would be helpful if Labour reviewed the new facts that form the political landscape as of this moment in time. I think there are three elements to this:

1. The polls are showing that anti-immigrant standpoints are ceasing to have a role in mobilising opposition moods in the way they had been at other times during the past decade. This is not to say that racism/xenophobia has retired from the scene; rather that the national political mood no longer pivots around these attitudes in quite the same way as it has been doing in the recent past.

2. The long, hard look at the UK economy made necessary after the Brexit vote has helped make the case that workers exercising free movement rights have have helped the sustain a degree of buoyancy as well as the viability of crucial public services. Media reports have been full of stories about threats to UK-based companies, the NHS, the education sector, social care, construction, food industries, hospitality, creative industries, etc, etc if freedom of movement is allowed to go down the pan. Labour ought to be a part of the learning curve which the rest of British society is clearly on, and not stand out against it.

3. Nobody in politics or around the social policy industry has the faintest idea on how a UK immigration policy which meets the needs of the UK economy (to say nothing of being all-square with human rights obligations) would operate. The Home Office continues to operate well below par in terms of functional efficiency even in terms of current responsibilities which are limited to the control of so-called third country nationals. Extending its remit to the millions of EU nationals who cross UK borders promises administrative chaos that would feed into the way our labour and housing markets operate – already burdened with the task of checking immigration status – and also important public services like health and education. Whoever speaks for the Labour home affairs brief in the next Parliament should be asking the most searching questions as to whether an efficient system of control over migration which excludes the principle of a right of free movement is even theoretically possible.

These are powerful arguments for the Labour Party to fundamentally review its current stance, and start finding more opportunities to say that the loss of free movements rights would make it harder to achieve its principal requirement from Brexit – which is that it should be ‘jobs friendly’. It should look to the moods that are dominant among the millennials to amplify this message and work to strengthen the message that a rights-based freedom of movement can continue to exist even after the UK has left the EU.