After Brexit, it's time for a lightbulb moment on UK immigration

It’s time for a lightbulb moment on UK immigration

To see clearly how an immigration system can work for the country in the decades ahead, it’s time to change the lightbulb and have a brighter debate.


Director, KPMG Law

KPMG in the UK


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Debate around immigration has flickered like a lightbulb ever since the Brexit referendum – sometimes bright, other times subdued, but always buzzing in the background.

Now, after three years of rancour, it’s time for a cooler, more rational debate about what immigration system the UK needs for the 21st century as – inevitably – the old system is swept away.

The current immigration system was built around the need for labour in the 1950s and 1960s. Cultural plus demographic changes forced modernisation of the rules but only in part. The UK now has an opportunity to build an entirely new immigration system, one that recognises the benefits of immigration, is simpler for business and protects our borders. Having a new prime minister with no Home Office legacy to weigh him down, will help.

Before I explain what this new system might look like, it’s worth laying out the two distinct changes that are happening simultaneously. 

The fix for EU nationals

The first is the new EU settlement scheme that will see EU citizens and their families register for ‘settled status’ – giving them access to benefits, health and education services – if they have been in the UK for over five years, or pre-settled status if they have been here for less than five years but are working their way towards settled status. 

If they fail to apply for settled status by December 2020, or if we have a deal by June 2021, they face becoming ‘undocumented’. So without their digital immigration status they would have difficulty in proving to landlords, employers, schools or the NHS that they are in the UK legally. This will impact all aspects of day-to-day life, from renting a home to work, health and education. 

The settled status scheme is already live, with over 750,000 people having been processed. That means the broad outlines of the scheme are largely fixed (though there is nothing to stop the new PM modifying its terms, as Theresa May showed by waving application fees for EU citizens seeking settled or pre-settled status).

Building for the long term

The second, and far more significant change, is to the UK’s broader immigration system that will apply to EU and non-EU migrants alike. Phased in from January 2021, it will replace a system that is clunky, slow and difficult to navigate (especially for businesses that might need to employ one or two non-UK citizens, but which have never had to navigate immigration and sponsorship rules before). 

What shape this new system takes is still up for grabs. Some fundamental questions need to be addressed as to the UK’s immigration policy – for example whether we allow people in to the UK only with an offer of work or whether we allow a certain number in every year in order to come, settle and add to the richness of our societies, regardless of whether they have a work offer. 

It is likely that the PM will play a key role in determining the shape of the policy given the extent to which immigration has become a doorstep issue. 

What we do know is that the Home Office has been quietly engaging stakeholders to an unprecedented degree – from FTSE employers to voluntary groups helping asylum seekers – to get a sense of how it could operate and what it could look like. That is encouraging given that employers will probably be asked to play an even greater role in preventing illegal working. 

A historic opportunity

Despite the practical and emotional challenges it has posed, Brexit gives the UK the chance to overhaul our immigration system: to create one that is digital, accessible and can fast-track key skills that are required at short notice – an important factor for global businesses deciding where to locate. 

A new system also presents the opportunity to create a national immigration and skills strategy, one that sends a more nuanced and targeted message to the world about the kind of talent the UK will continue to need after Brexit to grow sustainably and productively. 

Brexit has created far more heat than light on the divisive issue of immigration, yet are things now cooling? Immigration barely got a mention in the TV debate between the two Conservative Party leadership candidates and we are told has slipped down the Brexit agenda. Might we now have a relative moment of calm in which to find a consensus across business and politics. 

To see clearly how an immigration system can work for the country in the decades ahead, it’s time to change the lightbulb and have a brighter debate.

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