File photo dated 04/06/14 of a Border Force officer checking passports, as the latest official figures on immigration to the UK are published on Thursday. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Thursday February 23, 2017. Data on net long-term international migration in the year ending September will be released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). See PA story POLITICS Immigration. Photo credit should read: Steve Parsons/PA Wire
The Migration Advisory Committee suggests limits on low-skilled migration, except for agricultural workers, and is right to recognise the greatest economic benefits come from high and medium-skilled workers © PA

Immigration is a fractious topic in Britain. Debates over migration policy often lack economic evidence, dominated instead by nativist rhetoric, arbitrary targets and populist fear-mongering. The muddled approach of successive governments was, in large part, responsible for the Brexit vote. Only a new strategy that addresses the concerns and needs of all Britons can help to heal the nation’s divisions.

The Migration Advisory Committee, an independent government body, was commissioned to draw up a post-Brexit immigration policy. Its comprehensive report, released on Tuesday, is a significant breakthrough. With input from businesses and economists, it outlines a fresh yet sober approach that supports economic growth while also recognising the electorate’s desire to restore control of national borders.

Many of the MAC’s recommendations chime with those the Financial Times has advocated. Scrapping the cap on “Tier 2” visas for high-skilled workers (currently 20,700 a year) is critical to ensuring the UK remains attractive to businesses — by ensuring they can attract the best talent from across the world. The recommendation to extend this visa scheme to medium-skilled workers is also welcome.

The report suggests that limits should be placed on low-skilled migration, except for workers in the UK’s agricultural sector. Some businesses will be alarmed at the prospect of losing their steady supply of cheap labour. But the committee is right to recognise that the greatest economic benefits come from high and medium-skilled workers. This is where the government’s policies should be focused.

The committee’s report may well change the terms of the debate on migration, and serve as the basis for government legislation later this year. It helpfully explodes long- held myths that migrants have somehow damaged British life. It makes a detailed case that migrants have more than paid their dues in tax and contributions to the health service. The committee does not, however, advocate open borders or continued free movement of people.

The guidance does pose political challenges. The committee is careful to state that its proposals are made without regard to future trade deals. With this in mind, it argues there is no reason to differentiate migration from European Economic Area countries and the rest of the world. Although European migrants have made a greater contribution to the UK economy, it suggests there is not a decisive case to warrant a two-tier approach.

But the reality is that migration policy does not operate in a silo. If the UK hopes to forge a close trading relationship with the EU after Brexit, that will also apply to migration. Declining to offer preferential access to workers from the bloc will inevitably make striking a deal harder. The government’s preparations for a post-Brexit trade policy are based on preferential labour market access to countries willing to strike comprehensive trade deals. So while the government may begin with a level playing field on migration, it will not take long for anomalies to emerge.

The future of migration policy is linked to broader questions about the future of Britain. Does it wish to remain close to Europe, protecting economic growth with closer trading and migration policies? Or does it wish instead to turn its sights to the rest of the world — with all of the costs, upheaval and potential opportunities? How this report is interpreted by the government of Theresa May will offer some hint of the country’s direction. For businesses and citizens alike, clarity to all these questions is overdue.

Letter in response to this editorial:

Migrants offer economic benefits and owe nothing / From Alessandro Ciravegna

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