Will Vote Leave’s points based immigration system get null points?

This week the Vote Leave campaign unveiled it’s plans for immigration controls in a post-Brexit UK – an “Australian style” points system. I’m not quite sure why it keeps being referred to “Australian style” when we actually have a points system ourselves for non-EU migrants, but in any case according to Vote Leave this system will be “fairer, more humane, and better for the economy.”

First of all it needs to be pointed out that whatever kind of immigration laws the Leave campaign think we should have post-Brexit, whatever kind of trade deal they think we should negotiate, however much they might want to do things like scrap VAT on fuel, they won’t get to decide these things – these decisions will be made by the government of the day and they will not be bound by the Leave campaign’s wish-list. Of course Boris Johnson or Michael Gove may be a part of that government, one of them may even lead it, but there’s certainly no guarantee.

However given that, as I said above, what they are proposing seems to be little different from the current rules for non-EU migrants it seems reasonable to assume that a system like this would be in place, in fact so much so that one wonders why it is particularly newsworthy. So it is worth examining its likely impact.

Certainly there’s no doubt that under the current system some individuals are treated both unfairly and inhumanely – there are examples here although I’m not sure that they are the kind of things they are referring to. Rather the concern seems to be more towards UK citizens with foreign spouses who are having trouble bringing them to this country or, as Priti Patel has highlighted, Bangladeshi restaurant owners who can’t bring in trained chefs. It should be pointed out though that these things are not due to any EU laws, they are due to the UK government’s immigration rules and they could be changed tomorrow if the government so wished. Still, the assumption seems to be that without freedom of movement within the EU we would, or at least could, be more generous towards non-EU migrants.

Another perceived unfairness seems to be the fact that people from the EU are automatically entitled to take jobs here whereas people from other countries are not. But that ignores the fact that with EU countries there is the reciprocal right for British people to work there, which doesn’t apply outside the EU.

What I’m struggling to get to terms with is how a points system for all immigrants fits in with the Government’s stated aim of reducing net immigration to the tens of thousands and the stated concerns of a section of the public that the current numbers are far too high. Migration from outside the EU is already 188,000 as at last year – slightly higher than from within the EU and almost double the government’s overall target. Given that the Government has almost complete control over how many non-EU nationals are admitted it seems reasonable to assume this number is probably as low as it could practically be without bringing in measures which would have damaging consequences for our economy and upset a lot of employers. If, as I’ve seen suggested, it were simply a case of changing the points criteria for entry until you get the number of immigrants you think is desirable then the Government would surely be doing this already.

So as far as I can see, the current figure of 188,000 has to be seen as the baseline for immigration under the new system. Then if the perceived unfairness towards non-EU nationals mentioned above is addressed that surely must imply looser restrictions in some areas so that those spouses, Bangladeshi curry chefs etc. aren’t excluded. Then there’s EU nationals – they will no longer have an automatic right of entry but it’s fair to assume that a number of them would surely earn enough points to qualify.

And one more point – we’re talking net migration here, total immigrants minus those moving abroad from the UK. But without freedom of movement it will be harder for British people to move to Europe so many will have to stay here instead.

Now I’m sure that it’s difficult even for people who study this stuff properly to come up with estimates of the likely numbers so I’m not even going to try. But it seems pretty obvious that although the total numbers will almost certainly be less than now, they are still likely to be well over 200k and miles away from the Government’s target.

And then there’s the question of whether this system is actually appropriate for the UK’s needs. There seems to be a kind of “skilled migration good, unskilled bad” assumption here but actually employers often have trouble filling unskilled positions from the local population and the ready supply of workers from the EU can be valuable in this regard. And there’s also a need for unskilled workers for seasonal work such as fruit picking etc.

Still, some people may be happy with a points system for everyone because they will see it as fairer than the current one or because they see the principle of us having control over exactly who comes into this country as particularly important. These are subjective judgements which they are entitled to make, although it comes at a cost of denying freedom of movement to people in this country – something which for some, younger people in particular if polling and anecdotal evidence is to be believed, is actually a valuable freedom.

But for many people who are inclined towards leaving the EU the concern over migration is not with “fairness” but with the overall numbers, the strains they might put on public services, housing etc., and the way they see their communities changing. Regardless of whether one believes these concerns are well founded, they do seem to be shared by quite a lot of people, and these proposals will (or should) do little to allay those concerns. Or maybe those people will be happy enough to hear the words “tough controls on immigration” without bothering to look into the details.

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