You don’t have to go far in the seething Brexit debate to find that ‘migration’ is a Big Deal, not least as the Labour/Guardian side of the argument smells its own panic. Thus this:
Ed Balls’s latest intervention in the EU debate is striking. In today’s Daily Mirror, the former shadow chancellor writes that, “We need to press Europe to restore proper borders, and put new controls on economic migration.”
And this wail of despair:
The room bristled with antagonism. “Do you want to be governed by Brussels?” one shouted out. “You’re being sold a false prospectus, a bunch of lies,” she said, to no avail. One said: “When I get out at the station, I think I’m in another country. Labour opened the floodgates.”
Which of course they did.
And this on ‘British jobs for British workers’:
In its post-Blair, pre-Corbyn incarnation, Labour managed to locate the political equivalent of the “uncanny valley” – the point in which robots become lifelike enough to unnerve people but not enough to reassure them – appearing to be at once intensely relaxed about immigration to voters who wanted tougher border control, and racist to those voters who thought that immigration was a good thing
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Let’s take a look at the modern ‘migration’ problem and how it might be tackled modernly. Namely by treating it as an information management issue.
There is a lot of such information to manage. Life is complicated
We can all agree that we want lots of foreign people to visit our country (ie arrive, do their thing, then either (a) go away nicely or (b) ask politely that their visit be extended and respect the decision):
- students doing accredited degree courses or internships
- would-be investors, including people who buy UK property
- foreigners looking to buy UK goods to export or set up joint ventures with UK firms
- pop stars and film companies doing their arty things in UK concert halls or studios
- tourists wanting to spend their money looking at British stuff
- people attending UK conferences and training sessions
- academics doing research
- friends/relatives of people living in the UK visiting on holiday
- sports fans coming for international matches/events/Olympics
- people who are forced to come to the UK in an emergency (eg their plane breaks down)
- sailors on foreign vessels that briefly come into our ports
We all also agree that we are happy to allow some foreign people to stay for an extended period to work (ie take jobs that otherwise Brits might have taken):
- IT experts
- City financiers and lawyers
- experts to help run factories
- sports people who play for our clubs for a while and make us all very warm and happy (and their delectable partners):
We also all agree that some foreigners can come to the UK and live permanently:
- people who marry Brits (and not people who have fake marriages just to sneak in)
- people who study/live/work in the UK for long enough to qualify under the relevant rules to stay permanently
We also all agree that there are some people we do not want, either as visitors or workers
- people who seem to be lying or can’t give satisfactory explanations when they ask for permission to visit
- people who try to enter the country illegally
We also all agree that there are some countries we sufficiently trust so that their citizens can enter the UK for whatever purpose without any special application procedure – they simply show up, produce satisfactory ID (usually a passport) and then are admitted. Note that such people usually are not given indefinite leave to stay in the UK – there may be rules as to how long they are allowed to stay and what they can do here (as well as procedures for extending their stay or changing what they can do when they are here) – they nonetheless are admitted without more ado.
We also all agree that citizens from some countries have to apply for a visa to enter the UK, explaining what they plan to do when they get here and giving some proof that what they say is honest.
We also agree (or do we?) that some categories of foreign people in well defined special urgent need (asylum seekers and refugees) might be given special status to enter and/or stay as their case requires
We also all agree the fact that by accepting the EU Single Market, we have created a large category of people (namely citizens of EU countries) who can enter the UK to visit, work and live indefinitely with very light border procedures (ID card or passport). Note that by implication we also accept that that already large number is ‘unlimited’, in that other EU countries too are adding to their citizenry by accepting non-EU migrants.
NB Note too that when we let these EU people in en masse, we are still ‘controlling our borders’ – it’s just that we have accepted rules that allow all those people to enter!
Phew. We all agree on pretty much everything. So what’s the problem?
In a nutshell, this.
The rules for all these different categories of people are necessarily highly complicated as they need to deal with all sorts of different fast-moving ways modern people live and travel and work, or get oppressed in foreign lands.
And enforcing the rules in real life is also complicated. We are an open country and many millions of people a year come and go. See the figures for March 2016. Note that enforcing the rules occurs complicatedly at many different levels: at the point of entry (airports and other entry points); workplaces (are people taking jobs outside the rules they have accepted); colleges/schools (are students eligible to take the course concerned); our overseas missions where visas are checked; Channel Tunnel lorries; and so on. These days such enforcement mechanisms require close cooperation with other governments, who in turn look to us to help them manage their borders.
What, then, do UK people mean when they complain angrily that we have ‘lost control over our own borders’ and/or that ‘Labour opened the floodgates’?
All sorts of different things, often simultaneously!
The ‘wrong’ people are getting in. Too many people, right or wrong, are getting in and staying.
People are getting in illegally then getting ‘rights’. People who are getting in legally are cheating, ie taking jobs or claiming benefits to which they are not entitled.
The rules we have are the wrong rules. The rules we have are in principle unenforceable. The practical arrangements for enforcing the rules are too weak.
It’s sheer madness to allow hundreds of millions of EU citizens to have effectively unlimited rights to enter/visit/work/stay/put their children in schools/access the NHS (and even vote in local council elections). Our country’s culture and rules are under threat from far too many foreign people who simply don’t accept them.
No-one is gripping any of this. Enough is enough!
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In the Brexit referendum drama, the Leave side bang the limit EU migration drum but offer no credible plan for changing things and hope that no-one will notice. They know that by far the best economic/political result for a post-Brexit UK resembles the EEA/EFTA model, and that that means (realistically) accepting for some good time to come EU Single Market rules, including Freedom of Movement.
Meanwhile the Remain campaign have nothing to say that makes any sense even to their fans:
When Humphrys pressed him further Brown said the problem now is illegal migration. “I believe we have managed migration, not uncontrolled migration, the big problem is illegal migration,” he declared. Oh dear. Will that reassure voters?
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My sense is that British people will put up with quite liberal rules – perhaps even up to and including accepting the Single Market free movement, at least for the time being and if they take back from the EU control in other key areas – as long as they know that those rules are respected, and that they keep control over what the rules are.
What rattles people, myself included, is the idea that anyone who gets in to the country illegally or under false pretences suffers no negative consequences and may, by throwing up legal dust, stay indefinitely until the system heaves a sigh and regularises the position. People who enter the country illegally (or enter the country legally then deliberately cheat for personal advantage) are thieves, stealing opportunities and good will from everyone else who respects the rules: they deserve and should get exactly nothing, ever.
Likewise while we might make it possible for people who behave themselves to have an indefinite right to remain/work, we do not want to make it easy to get full citizenship (and therefore the right to vote to change the rules). See eg Dubai.
So, then, how to make the rules (any rules) enforceable?
Simple. Use IT.
We set up a requirement for robust biometric and credit-card identity criteria for everyone who wants to visit the UK, and enter each person’s data on a central database. The rules for that person are likewise entered on the database. Every business, college, football club, hospital, shop, hotel or anything else that employs or engages with a foreigner is required by law to check and update that person’s migration status. It becomes easy and fast to identify who is respecting the rules of entering and staying in the country and who is not, and then to take appropriate action.
The key thing is to make sure that anyone who breaks the rules suffers consequences:
- No-one who enters outside the proper legal framework ever gets to work legally or enjoy benefits or free healthcare or any eventual citizenship rights
- Anyone who breaks the terms of admission risks deportation and/or gets black marks that prevent or drastically curtail further lawful employment, access to benefits and any eventual citizenship rights
- Anyone who breaks the rules (eg works illegally or who gets ‘free’ NHS treatment or student loans and does not pay back the money as required) gets a thick black mark and is not allowed further visits to the UK (or has to make a heavy financial deposit before being readmitted) – again, hard if not impossible to get eventual citizenship rights
- Relatives of people found to have cheated may find themselves under extra scrutiny when they want to visit the UK – people and families build up (or lose) their own Trust Records
- Anyone who gets UK citizenship but then cheats or commits a serious offence may have that citizenship removed or suspended
You get the idea.
Note that in effect this sort of scheme amounts to everyone being on the state’s central database (ie having an e-ID card) – how else can any business or college know who is a foreigner and who isn’t? See eg Belgium.
NO!!!!!! BIG BROTHER!!!!!!!!
But that’s the way we are heading, if we are not there anyway. As things stand vast amounts of information about us are stored on UK state and other databases anyway – it’s just that they are poor at coordinating with each other, so we get the worst of all worlds – too many rules enforced badly or inconsistently or not at all.
Most Brits will be happy walking straight from a plane to a taxi passing through almost invisible biometric entry procedures that check one’s eyeballs/face/gait to confirm that one has the right to enter the UK as a UK citizen, knowing that any foreigner likewise is being checked and then excluded/admitted as is appropriate. Likewise most Brits will be pleased to be assured that the state is able to enforce its own rules, and that only those eligible to work or collect benefits in the UK under agreed rules will be doing so. Yes, it’s complicated running such an open society. But at least we control the rules – and we aren’t being ripped off.
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The grim reality of living in our ‘globalised world’ (as some of my UN course participants quaintly call it) with so many highly mobile people is that ONLY something like this sort of comprehensive continuing electronic ‘control’ will allow any rules to be upheld and enjoy popular support. This means radically changing our view of civil liberties and redefining the role/reach of the state.
We all lose what we naively take to be our current ‘anonymity’ or ‘privacy’.
But in return we get certain new ‘freedoms’, not least the certainty that only people who obey the rules get the privileges of entering and staying/working in our country on the terms we set. And the freedom of knowing that the cost of cheating the rules falls squarely and heavily and unerringly on the cheats themselves. And the freedom of knowing that anyone who cheats will never have the right to vote and thereby change the rules.
If not, has anyone any better ideas?