There are two really pressing issues of national cohesion in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Firstly, we have to create our own immigration policy, with emotions running very strong on both sides of this debate. Secondly, there is huge tension between different parts of the UK about who is going to be telling the others what they have to do. These two issues come together on immigration, with,for example, London and the East Coast of England having contempt for each other’s views. Being in the EU meant that the UK tended to walk away from these internal conflicts. We knew that we had no control over EU immigration and left it up to EU immigrants to choose where they settled. But now that we are taking control back from the EU we have to face up to the tensions. Is it possible to square the circle and let different parts of the UK have the immigration they want? And could this be a key part of a wider strategy for a Brexit UK, using our new control to create a flexible UK, defusing the anger of both Remain and Leave areas and creating a Re-United Kingdom?
I have an idea that I think is worth considering. We could have regional immigration visas. Rather than just having a blanket national policy, we could devolve decisions on much of immigration to the nations and city-regions of the UK. This may sound bonkers to many people. But the great majority of our current visas for non-European immigrants are already tied to a specific location. If you want a study visa, you have to be accepted on a government-approved course at a specific accredited university or college. If you drop-out of that specific university, your visa is invalid and you have to leave the UK. The same is true of most work visas. Most individuals from outside Europe who want to work in the UK need a government-licensed UK employer to sponsor their visa for a particular job. If an individual stops working for that employer, the visa is invalid and they have to leave the UK. By definition, these visas are tied to a location. Your visa for Edinburgh University or for a job in Edinburgh is tied to you living in Scotland. It is already a Scottish-specific visa. And we should remember that this is true in other Western countries – visas for work and study in North America or Australia are, in practice, similarly tied to specific locations.
As we have a robust system for location-specific visas already, it is entirely feasible to devolve control for much of immigration policy to sub-UK levels of government. Visas would still be issued and operated by the Home Office. We could tighten the locational aspects of the existing system further to secure public confidence. For example, individuals could be required to be registered for, and paying, Council Tax (as their primary home) in the nation or region to which their visa is attached. Or those on an Entrepreneur Visa could be required to be to be registered for, and paying a certain level of, Business Rates in the location for which their visa was granted. We would need to tighten-up the system of immigration enforcement to ensure that people don’t breach their visas, but we need to do that anyway, especially once we’ve left the EU.
In theory, control of visa policy could be devolved to any level of government. But I think some are more appropriate than others. There is an overwhelming argument to give this power to the Devolved Nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Next in line would London, which has both a legitimate and accountable government in the Mayor of London and clearly a unique position as a world city, where almost four out of ten people were born abroad. There is a strong case for the new Metro Mayors (e.g. in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands) to have the same powers. There may be a case for some of the large Counties like Kent or important cities like Bristol or Newcastle. The only real limitation is that there has to be a legitimate and accountable government for the location, which people can kick-out if they don’t like its immigration policy.
We could exempt a range of visa categories from devolution. But only if we want to. It could be a narrow or broad list of national entitlements for a visa. A narrow list might include existing distinct categories in our current non-EU immigration system, such as elite sports people, intra-company transfers in multi-national companies and the (limited) ability to join family already in the UK. In terms of a broader list, I assume it’s the settled will of the country to allow all Irish Citizens the right to live and work in the UK. We might want to extend that to others like Canadians or Australians. We might want to exempt all student visas from devolution and simply declare that the UK is open for business on education. The education system for non-EU students is already pretty tough in its requirements (on the levels of approved courses, standards of English, proven ability to fund life in the UK, paying a charge for the NHS, registering with the Police, etc). Or we might want to stick to a very narrow list of national entitlements for a visa and devolve most decisions to a sub-UK level.
If much of immigration was devolved, what would happen? Well, politicians would need to win local public confidence in their local immigration policy. They would need to find the Goldilocks level (not too much, not to little) to drive their economy whilst maintaining public support. This would allow London and Scotland, for example, to do what they wanted, with the political risks and rewards localised. London may, for example, want to expand visa opportunities for low-skilled workers, if that makes political and economic sense for the people of London. An area like Merseyside could devise an attractive immigration policy to solve the problems of its declining working age population, the disappearing 25-34 year olds and the lack of business start-ups. Other areas might decide to have very little immigration. In practice, that is likely to be areas which have little immigration right now. They might change their mind if they see other areas thriving, with their locally-determined higher levels of immigration. Or they might not. But that would be their democratic right. It would also be the limit of their democratic right. They couldn’t decide to stop London or Scotland or Wales or Manchester or wherever else doing what they wanted to do.
Clearly local areas would need to make economic and financial calculations about immigration levels. Increasingly, the fiscal system will fund any expansion, or punish any contraction of the population, especially of the economically active population. Scotland is now exposed to growth or decline in income tax. English local authorities will be raising all their finance locally and local taxes (Council Tax and Business Rates) respond to immigration levels and activity. A devolved immigration system, with public support for the planned levels, might improve public support for greater house-building in their own area. And the national per capita funding systems for health and education will increasingly direct funding to areas of growing population, and away from those areas with relative decline. If politicians can show that housing and funding for key public services are increasing (or declining), they will be able to lead a robust immigration debate in their area.
This idea has much to recommend it. Our non-EU visa system is already, essentially, location-specific, as it is in other Western countries outside the EU. Different parts of the country want different levels and types of immigration. This idea builds upon the theme of “The People Taking Control” and creates a much more democratically accountable system for immigration. And the beauty of the non-EU world is that if we don’t like how it works in practice, we can just change it. Whenever, and however, we choose.