Many have suggested free movement between the EU and the UK should not survive Brexit because it would continue to facilitate the kind of large-scale immigration from Europe that people specifically voted to end.
It’s certainly true that many are hostile to low-skilled immigration, of which there is a significant amount from the EU, though there is much more support for higher-skilled immigration. This hostility isn’t necessarily the product of xenophobia – there are legitimate concerns about downward pressure on jobs, wages, healthcare, housing, and welfare – and about the pace of cultural change in communities where thousands of new immigrants can arrive in a very short space of time. These concerns should be taken seriously.
But is wholesale immigration reform actually necessary to reduce migrant numbers? One of the most common answers I’ve heard to the immigration question during the course of this project is that labour regulation reform would be sufficient to address the concerns people have.
What exactly does this mean?
Firstly it means cracking down on companies and recruitment agencies that fail to advertise jobs in Britain and instead go straight to Eastern Europe and elsewhere. It also means cracking down on false self-employment and raising the minimum wage, which should make low-wage jobs more appealing to British workers.
If this plan succeeds, it might mean any changes to free movement with the EU are rendered unnecessary, assuming addressing public concerns over immigrant numbers is our main objective.
However, the picture is a little more complex than this proposal perhaps allows. Arguably, what people are looking for more than reducing immigration policy to a numbers game, is greater control. Interfering with the supply and demand of immigration from Europe wouldn’t necessarily address this concern, but introducing reforms such as yearly quotas for low-skilled migration probably would.
The proposal is also untested. What impact would raising the minimum wage really have, for example? Would it really be enough to motivate British workers to pick strawberries and perform other jobs they may consider undesirable? Or would it actually increase the financial draw for workers from overseas? There’s really no way to know unless we go ahead and try it.
Reforming labour regulations should most certainly be part of the equation when we’re looking at addressing the post-Brexit immigration question, but it may not be the whole picture. Whatever the case, we must ensure that whatever immigration system emerges after Brexit, it is underpinned by progressive principles rather than the reactionary politics that gave us the net migration target and other senseless policies.
Andrew Noakes is the Director of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights
This article was originally written for our dedicated Brexit and Human Rights Campaign