Immigration might help your GDP, but it doesn’t help mine

Guest blog by Ian Robinson, Immigration Law Partner, Fragomen Worldwide.

How would I sum up the job of the new Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, when she thinks about immigration in a post-Brexit world? ‘Immigration might be good for your GDP, but it doesn’t help mine’.

A friend made the point when we caught up a few weeks ago. He found macro-economic arguments difficult to accept when he's heard of friends losing out on work because EU nationals have charged less for their time.

The Home Secretary won’t be able to crack the immigration conundrum until she has a convincing and proven response to that line. And it isn’t only her who needs the answer. MPs and prospective MPs will hear variations of the same line when they knock on doors before the next election.

So what should be the approach to the problem?

Every country in the world can benefit from migration. The trick is to make sure it is properly managed and moreover, that the public believes it is properly managed. The majority of British people haven't had that level of confidence for years.

It is too early to talk about the details of the policy. We don’t know what our overall relationship will look like after Brexit, let alone whether EU nationals will continue to enjoy free movement rights. But it is not too early to talk about what the country needs from its immigration system.

Flexibility

First, the system needs to flex to the needs of the labour market. At the most simple level this means that if a company cannot find skills or expertise locally then they should be able to import them. The economy won't grow, in fact it will retract, if companies cannot access the right talent.

Yet if ministers stop there they will ultimately fail. It is in nobody’s interest for particular sectors to be permanently reliant on foreign workers. Local workers should be given every opportunity to upskill. Businesses already play an important role in developing UK workers — companies who don’t develop their staff can only stagnate, after all. The immigration system can do more to inform long-term planning when government is thinking about how to improve the UK’s skills base.

Transparency

Second, the system needs to be transparent. Businesses and migrants have to know what is expected of them, as with any area of law. At the same time, the public needs to know how the system works — if it is opaque, it might signal that someone is hiding something.

The need for transparency goes beyond the letter of the law. If immigration is good for all of our GDP then the public should be given clear, impartial advice to explain why. Likewise, if there are to be losers in the process, then surely that also needs to be talked about. Only then can leaders decide what, if anything, can be done to help them.

Fairness

Finally, the immigration system has to be fair to all involved. Overseas workers should be welcomed, but the immigration system should ensure that they are not filling jobs that could be filled by local workers. If migrants are here, helping the UK by bringing skills we need and contributing to society we should surely say thank you by allowing them to plan their lives and settle here, if they so wish.

The Home Secretary doesn’t need to wait to make the system fairer. The world changed in lots of ways when the UK decided to leave the EU. I have to think that it changed most for the EU nationals already here. It must have felt like a country they'd thrown their lot in decided it wish they hadn’t bothered. To compound things they've been told they might not even be able to stay.

Something has to be done to reassure those in this situation. The government says it fully expects EU nationals will stay but won’t make any promises. I understand the argument — the PM wants to see how negotiations go with Brussels — but people aren't bargaining chips and they deserve to be treated properly.

Don’t get me wrong, none of this is easy. But if Amber Rudd wants to give the public confidence, to balance the macro-economic arguments against personal experience, these three principles will set her off in the right direction.

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  • Thank you for a clear and sensible article.

    The Home secretary's comments that companies should list 'foreign workers' is deplorable and discriminatory. UK is still in the EU, and therefore all EU Nationals have a right to be treated equally as much as every nation within the EU has an obligation to treat EU Nationals equally.

    As and when, sadly, the UK decides to exercise its right to depart the EU, one hopes that the British nation and CIPD especially ensures that minorities and guests are treated with the fairness and respect that has always been the hallmark of british and European culture.