Windrush demonstrates the need to reform our immigration system. Brexit offers us that opportunity, says John Baron MP.
The experience of the ‘Windrush generation’, which earlier this week led to the resignation of Amber Rudd as Home Secretary, has propelled immigration back to the forefront of national debate. This has always been a sensitive area – we have just passed the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s incendiary speech – but equally always one of great importance.
For the four decades of our membership, our immigration policy has been set through the prism of the European Union’s ‘freedom of movement’ rules which give all citizens of EU member states the right to live and work in each other’s countries. When member states economies were of broadly similar sizes and maturity, these rules did not feature highly on the political agenda. However, this changed markedly when the EU expanded into Central and Eastern Europe, especially as the-then Labour Government, almost uniquely in the EU, opted not to establish any transitional controls on those coming to live and work in the UK.
It should go without saying that immigration has been hugely positive for our country. Throughout the centuries, people born overseas have made a massive and enduring contribution to the economic, social and cultural life of our nation – and long may this continue. In my experience over my 17 years as a constituency MP, the vast majority of people come to Britain to work hard and contribute fully to our national life, and not merely to claim benefits as some wrongly allege.
However, the pace of change over recent years did give rise to understandable concerns as to the growing pressures on housing, the NHS, education and other public services. As ‘freedom of movement’ rules prevented any action being taken to regulate the number of EU citizens coming to Britain, governments responding to these concerns had few other options but to crack down on immigration from non-EU countries as well as illegal immigration – hence the establishment of the so-called ‘hostile environment’ and the push for ID cards, both under New Labour.
The increasing barriers to non-EU migration were, and continue to be, widely noted overseas. On meeting diplomats from non-EU countries when I was serving on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, it would not be long before the difficulties their nationals were having with securing visas to come to, and work in, the UK were raised. Strict quotas mean that even skilled workers from outside the EU frequently struggle to enter the UK workforce – such as the 100 Indian doctors being denied visas, despite NHS pressures – whilst unskilled workers from the EU still have full rights to do so.
In addition, the extra scrutiny on student visas, though understandable to crack down on ‘bogus colleges’, gave rise to the belief in many countries outside the EU, especially in India, that their students were no longer welcome in the UK. Quite apart from denying students access to our world-class higher education (a growing export market) this is a terrible blow to our current and future ‘soft power’ – a 2015 survey indicated 55 world leaders were educated in UK higher education establishments.
Brexit offers a historic chance to fundamentally redesign our immigration system once we break free from ‘freedom of movement’, in favour of a controlled and fairer system open to the whole world – not just the EU. For many Brexiteers – myself included – this was one of the main reasons for voting ‘leave’, favouring a truly ‘Global Britain’ and against a closed-minded approach focused narrowly on the EU. Indeed, as a member of the EU, it is perhaps difficult to defend an immigration system which discriminates against people from non-EU countries.
However, designing this new immigration system will require a certain amount of courage and conviction. Already figures such as Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, are calling for preferential treatment for EU citizens after ‘freedom of movement’ rules cease to apply. This would be to miss a historic opportunity to show to the world that the brightest and best, regardless of citizenship, are welcome to live and work in Britain.