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Election 2019

What do the manifestos say about immigration policy?

Election 2019 – Immigration Policy Outcomes

Immigration policy is one of the most controversial political topics in Britain today and the electorate’s attitude to it will be one of the main factors in determining the outcome of the general election to be held on 12 December.

The topic of immigration control encompasses a range of core national issues including the relationships between freedom of movement, border security, national identity, the capacity of the public sector to service the needs of a growing population and the demands of the economy for workers across a range of sectors and skill levels. It is also, of course, central to the topic that has consumed all of the political oxygen over the last three and a half years: Brexit.

The political parties have now published their manifestos – we summarise below the various positions on immigration policy.

The Conservative Party’s primary message is to “Get Brexit Done”. Central to this outcome will be ending free movement, taking back control of the borders and implementing an immigration policy that represents a level playing field to all nations.

The conservatives have finally abandoned their long-held (and never achieved) ambition to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands annually. This has been replaced by a promise that “overall numbers will be down”.

Alongside the clichéd intention to attract “the brightest and the best” (see previous immigration policies from all parties over the last 20 years) to participate in a new post-Brexit labour market, sit more specific initiatives including an NHS visa to meet shortages in the public health sector and the introduction of the fabled “Australian-style” points based system which is likely to include the requirements to have a good grasp of English, strong qualifications and a clear job offer. Presumably this will be modelled on the previous HSMP/ Tier 1 (General) route.

The Labour Party manifesto adopts an altogether different tone, emphasising that the “movement of people has enriched our society, our economy and our culture”. Whilst there is very little in terms of immigration policy specifics, the language is in line with much of labour’s message on workers’ rights: “decisive action will be taken to regulate the labour market to stop undercutting of wages and conditions, and the exploitation of workers including migrant workers”.

Labour also proposes to “scrap” the 2014 Immigration Act. This is the legislation that made it harder for people living in the UK illegally to access public services, tenancies and bank accounts. It also removed a number of appeal rights against immigration decision and introduced the NHS surcharge.

The 2014 Act legislated for the “hostile environment” that the Labour manifesto proposes to dismantle. Labour also proposes to compensate migrants who suffered as a consequence of the Windrush scandal.

On the central issue of the election, Brexit, the Labour manifesto is more oblique. Free movement, they say, will depend on the outcome of a second referendum. If the country remains in the EU freedom of movement will continue. If not, it will be a matter of negotiation but Labour recognises “the social and economic benefits that free movement has brought”. The document falls short of a policy to “extend free movement” that had been agreed at Labour party conference.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto makes a bolder and more decisive statement in terms of Brexit and free movement. If elected to a majority government, the Lib Dems will “stop  Brexit and save EU freedom of movement”. The commitment to revoke article 50 and commit to remaining in the EU without a further referendum has caused controversy in the election campaign and, if opinion polls are to be trusted, does not appear to be gaining traction with voters.

The manifesto does however provide more details in respect of specific policies than the Labour document. In addition to the general aim to “scrap the hostile environment”, the party would move policymaking on work permits and student visas out of the Home Office and into the Departments for Business and Education respectively, and establish a new arms-length, non-political agency to take over processing applications (see UK Border Agency?). They also propose to replace Tier 2 work visas with “a more flexible merit-based system”, whatever that may mean.

Other proposals include measures to introduce a “Training up Britain Programme” to make the most of migrants’ skills and to create a new two-year visa for students to work after graduation (although this is a policy initiative of the current government so it is difficult to frame as a “new” policy). They also intend to abolish the minimum income requirement for spouse and partner visas.

The SNP manifesto makes a positive case for migration into Scotland:

“Scotland relies on migration to grow our population and fuel our economy – more so than anywhere else in the UK”.

The SNP describes conservative plans to cut overall migration numbers as “an act of vandalism” on Scotland’s interests. The party calls for the devolution of powers to the Scottish government to create a Scottish immigration system. This is not surprising given the party’s overarching aim of securing a second referendum on Scottish independence. The SNP also wishes to remain in, or re-join, the EU as an independent nation state. The roadmap to this would have to be through a hung parliament and supply arrangement with a minority Labour government.

Finally, the Brexit Party promises to “reduce annual immigration and address wage stagnation and skills gaps by introducing a “fair points system that is blind to ethic origin”. Technically the Brexit Party has not produced a manifesto – preferring to call their document a “contract with the people”. Central to their pitch, of course, is to achieve a “clean-break” Brexit which inevitably would mean an immediate cessation of free movement and the introduction of an immigration regime that does not consist of preferential arrangements for any country or group of countries.

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