It should be no surprise to find that the policy area where the Conservatives perform worst is ‘managing migration’ with only 14% public approval. There are many reasons for this, including the hostile environment, the Windrush scandal, border chaos post-Brexit and the dither and delay we have seen over granting Ukrainian refugees sanctuary in the UK. And this is only to name a few.
Britain urgently needs a new immigration system that is competent and compassionate, championed by a Labour government. There is a long list of policies to scrap, ranging from indefinite detention to the hostile environment, but what will most win over the public is talking about our dos – not only our don’ts.
My pamphlet New Arrivals, launched last week by the Fabian Society, sets out a fair immigration system for post-Brexit Britain to fill this gap. Building on the previous Fabian pamphlet by Keir Starmer, I connect his vision with what a new system should look like that promotes Labour’s principles of security, prosperity and respect.
Firstly, we can secure our borders better with more compassion. The government should not be scrambling to create ad-hoc arrangements to address each humanitarian crisis. This has caused enormous frustration, U-turns and delays that are as foreseeable as they are avoidable. My pamphlet recommends creating a new emergencies programme to plan ahead for these circumstances, making for a clearer and more effective on-the-shelf scheme when these tragedies sadly arise.
Labour should adopt policies that make for a more compassionate system. It should review the availability of safe and legal routes for asylum, end the use of indefinite detention and allow asylum seekers to work after six months instead of needing to wait for a year or more.
Secondly, Labour can support a pro-prosperity approach to immigration. It should reduce application fees, standardise visa processing times and use occupation-specific income thresholds only. Short-term flexible work visas would make businesses more agile to take greater advantage of opportunities. The use of regional-based visas could support levelling up outside London and the South East, better targeting economic need across the UK.
As a professor, I know the importance of education and skills. My pamphlet recommends that Labour expands the Turing Scheme, allowing year-long study and academic staff exchanges that would be hugely beneficial to students and staff. The youth mobility visa should be better supported, for example by reducing its health surcharge.
Finally, Labour can promote greater respect in the immigration system. The family rules can currently separate British citizens from their families. This must be changed and the income requirements reviewed to help bring British families together in the UK. EU citizens should be automatically granted settled status after five years without the need to apply.
It is important for non-native speakers to acquire English. Labour should end the existing postcode lottery of language provision. We should also ensure equal recognition of native British languages like Welsh, Scots Gaelic and Cornish.
I am a long-time advocate for launching an advisory group on citizenship to conduct a public consultation about the ‘Life in the UK’ test – which is like a ‘bad pub quiz’ – and create a new fourth edition. This is urgent, and I’m pleased to have convinced the House of Lords justice and home affairs committee to conduct an inquiry – currently ongoing – into the test.
We should raise the profile of citizenship ceremonies and introduce a new ‘UK Day’ bank holiday immediately following Remembrance Sunday. After the lockdowns, we have come to cherish being with family and friends more than ever. A new bank holiday celebrating our coming together would be a welcome way forward.
We are at a critical point in our history. Over the last two years, Labour has made great strides to reform and renew. Our commitment to form the government that Britain needs at the next general election has never been stronger. It is incumbent on all of us to begin planning for the kinds of changes a Labour government will need to deliver.
Immigration is personal to me. I am an immigrant with the visas, application fee bills and passed citizenship test to prove it. And it is important, in my view, that immigrants are made a part of the conversation, but not given a veto, about how an immigration system works, not least those that have experienced it first-hand and become British citizens.
This pamphlet is my contribution to the debate on how we can win the argument on immigration with a fair, more humane approach, outlining more than 60 new policies for an immigration system based on fairness. Another, brighter, future is possible on Labour’s road ahead.