During the referendum campaign I concentrated on the economic case for leaving the EU -which I believe will make the UK more prosperous; and on the political case for emancipating our democracy from a foreign jurisdiction run by people who we do not elect and cannot remove.
The received wisdom however, is that the referendum result was largely driven by immigration and the determination to gain control over the flow of EU migrants.
We are now wrestling with the need to honour this demand for immigration control whilst, at the same time, reconciling it with what has become an addiction in some sectors of our economy to a continued flow of migrant labour.
Our determination to have an effective immigration policy which does not do damage our industry, has contributed to the demand for a ‘transition period’ post-Brexit to smooth the process.
Certainty and predictability are important to industry and need to be given proper consideration. We do also need to consider however, that the desire to smooth the transition will also have the effect of prolonging it: The longer that transition, the more we delay the full economic benefits of exiting the EU.
As part of this transition process and to inform our new immigration policy, the Government has commissioned a new study of Industry’s needs for migrant labour. I find it hard to believe that we do not already have this information. In any event, we need to be cautious about such studies. They are very dependent upon the assumptions and models that underlie them, and they can be interpreted to suit a particular point of view rather that add to the sum of knowledge. Furthermore, the capital and infrastructure costs of immigration (the impact on housing, hospitals and schools) are rarely taken into account when measuring the economic impact of immigration.
No matter how smooth we want our transition to be, we need to address over the longer term some key questions about the scale of our reliance on migrant labour:
What is it about our education system that prevents it from equipping our young people with the skills that industry requires?
What is it about our welfare system that ensures that, even in areas where unemployment remains relatively high, low skilled jobs are filled almost exclusively in some industries by migrants?
Why is our largest employer, the NHS, so dependent upon migrant healthcare professionals when half our own applicants for student nursing places are turned down, and students with 4 straight A grades at A level still cannot get a place in medical school?
Until we have resolved these issues we are unlikely to make much headway in reducing immigration irrespective of our discontinued membership of the EU.