The absence of an outline of a post-exit immigration regime is a serious gap in the Referendum debate. That need not be so. There is a fairly clear way ahead: to minimise disruption, while achieving control of numbers. The key element that needs to be controlled is migration for work (which accounts for the bulk of net EU migration). This could be sharply reduced if EU immigrants were subject to the same requirement for work permits as now currently apply to non-EU workers: the aim would be to reduce the overall scale of immigration without losing the economic benefit of highly skilled immigration.
By doing this, net migration – 330,000 last year – could be cut by about 100,000 per year. Tourism would not suffer: obviously, there would be no need to require tourist visas for EU citizens any more than we do for Americans now. Nor would there be any need for restrictions on students, or genuine marriage. Even freedom to live elsewhere could be protected: EU citizens could still come to live in the UK provided they had the means to support themselves.
The many EU citizens already living or working in the UK would be unaffected. Their rights would be preserved and are in any case guaranteed by the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969 which most EU member states have ratified. All these arrangements would, of course, be reciprocal.
There has been some talk about the Australian Points Base System, but this is not a good model for the UK. Their system is complex and our attempt to introduce a British version has proved unworkable (it has been abandoned, in all but name). And anyway, the Australian system is designed to promote immigration rather than reduce it. The best description for a new, post-Brexit system would be something like: ‘A tough system of work permits confined to the highly skilled while, as far as possible, preserving free movement in both directions for other purposes.’
It would be enforced by extending current penalties (hefty fines and possible imprisonment) to any citizens – European or otherwise – who were found to be working here without a permit. Another advantage would be the ability to check all incomers to the UK against a watch list: criminals could be removed or deported in accordance with UK law, rather than much softer EU regulations.
None of the above is radical; it is all fairly basic and in line with the policies adopted by free countries who control their own borders. And it is, perhaps, worth remembering why this is necessary. The UK population is now about 65 million, and is growing by about half a million a year – the fastest rate for nearly a century and the equivalent to building a city the size of Liverpool every year. Office for National Statistics (ONS) population projections, on which the government base many of their calculations, simply assume that the current levels of net migration will be cut by 40 per cent, from the most recent figure of 333,000 to 185,000 per year. Even so, this would mean that another three million immigrants will arrive by 2030 and that the UK population will reach 80 million in 2060, making us the most populous country in Europe – and certainly one of the most crowded. Two thirds of this increase will be the result of future immigration.
And that’s assuming a sharp fall in migration. If none emerges, and it continues at current levels, there will be nearly four and a half million extra immigrants by 2030, which would also mean building 135,000 homes every year just to house the new immigrants and their families – that is a new home every four minutes, night and day. Meanwhile, 60 per cent of local authorities are expected to have a shortage of primary school places within two years. This is at a time when public spending is being cut.
EU migration has risen very sharply in the last decade, and there is – really – no reason to think that it will fall. Much will depend on developments in the Eurozone and in Eastern Europe but it might well increase as the National Living Wage comes into effect. Yet, if such an increase were to occur, then the UK – as a member of the EU – would have no means whatever of reducing the inflow since any such measures would be contrary to the principle of non-discrimination embedded in the Treaties.
In deciding how to vote on 23 June there will be many hefty considerations. This must be one of them.