UK: Sajid Javid has a unique opportunity to change the toxic debate over immigration. But he might not be allowed to

Interesting analysis of Gresham’s law as applied to immigration debates in the UK and the challenges (and opportunity) facing the new Home Secretary:

Amber Rudd’s departure has not eased the pressure on the government over the Windrush scandal. The questions keep on coming. This afternoon Labour is urging the Commons to ask ministers to publish all the government documents relating to the affair since 2010, which could shed new light on Theresa May’s involvement as home secretary.

Sajid Javid, Rudd’s successor, must answer claims that senior officials were paid bonuses for hitting targets for deporting illegal immigrants and that foreign students were wrongly deported over language tests. There are also suggestions May blocked moves to lift a cap on visas for foreign doctors that the NHS needed.

Javid must design a new system for EU migration post-Brexit which does not repeat the Windrush mistakes. That’s before he turns his attention to the rise in violent crime, the terrorist threat and other nasties lurking in the woodwork that we don’t know about.

Javid made an encouraging start by ditching May’s rhetoric about a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, which indirectly caused the Windrush scandal. But his move has worried right-wing Conservative MPs, who fear he is going soft on “illegals”. In fact, Javid has not changed the policy, merely its label. Some Tories, including May, are convinced the public are on their side on “illegals” and therefore bring the conversation back to this topic at every opportunity.

Of course, people are against illegal activity. The UK does have a problem regarding illegal immigration. But talking about that to the exclusion of everything else risks repeating the mistakes of both Tory and Labour politicians for the past 20 years. They have assumed the worst on public opinion and pandered to it. Labour talked tough to prevent the Tories exploiting immigration. The Tories ramped up the rhetoric to combat Ukip’s threat. The party which trumpets providing the first BAME home secretary ran a disgraceful campaign to stop Sadiq Khan becoming London Mayor, only to find the capital’s voters much more tolerant.

I recall being told by a Tony Blair aide that a forthcoming Queen’s speech would include an immigration bill. But the Home Office knew nothing about it – an example of the “do something” culture. Blair got his bill.

The Tories set their arbitrary target to reduce annual net migration below 100,000, which depends as much on the number of people leaving as coming in. Immigration figures were published every three months, showing the target was never going to be hit, which fuelled public scepticism about politicians. So did Labour’s woeful underestimation of the number who would come to Britain after Eastern European countries joined the EU in 2004.

The ever-tougher rhetoric created a vicious circle, as politicians shouted louder to cover their failure to meet public expectations, which they created but could never deliver on. It was rare to talk up the benefits of immigration. As Sir Oliver Letwin, David Cameron’s policy chief, admitted on Monday: “All of us over the past 20, 30 years in British politics have underplayed the advantages to our country of migration, so the argument has become unbalanced.”

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because the same happened on Europe. After 30 years of criticising the EU, promising to slay the dragon of an imaginary superstate and never talking about the benefits of membership, it was hardly surprising the public voted to leave.

On immigration, public opinion is more nuanced than many politicians believe. Some 120 group discussions in 60 places held by the British Future think tank found that most people are “balancers” who recognise the benefits of migration but worry about the impact locally.

In an open letter to Javid, Sunder Katwala, the think tank’s director, said its “national conversation” had found much scope for consensus. He added: “A balanced policy can square this circle: ensuring that Britain controls the large-scale movement of lower-skilled workers that fuelled the Brexit vote while remaining open to the skills and energy that generations of new arrivals have contributed to our economy and society.”

British Future found that two thirds of people would support an annual cap on low-skilled workers; it enjoys majority support among Labour and Tory supporters and Remainers and Leavers. Nick Boles, a former Tory minister, has also proposed replacing the current target with an annual cap reflecting the economy’s needs. Javid might be sympathetic, but feels hemmed in by last year’s Tory manifesto “objective” to reduce net migration to “the tens of thousands”.

A similar conclusion was reached by the Commons Home Affairs Committee, which said in January: “Treating different kinds of migration differently would reflect most people’s views of immigration, and allow for much greater consensus to be built into the debate, as well as for greater transparency over immigration policy in general.”

Javid has a lot of speed reading to do. But he should read the British Future and select committee reports on the scope for consensus. He has a unique opportunity to break the vicious circle, and end our polarising and toxic debate on immigration. The question is: will May let him?

Source: Sajid Javid has a unique opportunity to change the toxic debate over immigration. But he might not be allowed to

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

One Response to UK: Sajid Javid has a unique opportunity to change the toxic debate over immigration. But he might not be allowed to

  1. Robert Addington says:

    The Windrush scandal is really about the still-incomplete transition from an imperial to a post-imperial model of British citizenship — a transition initiated by Canada in 1947. The British government must come up with a clear, coherent answer to this question: Are you ‘British’ because you were born in the U.K. or have a substantial connection there, or only if you can produce the right bits of paper?

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