Amber Rudd and Brandon Lewis leave 10 Downing Street (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Immigration – confusion and inaction from government
The Home Secretary’s announcement yesterday on post-Brexit immigration plans was barely out the door before the government’s all-encompassing confusion over Brexit enveloped it.
Amber Rudd’s junior minister, Brandon Lewis, contradicted her spin if not her substance, almost immediately. Meanwhile, the government continues to fail to take initiatives it could already take which would go a long way to demonstrating that we have always had more control over migration than Brexiteers admit.
The first thing worth noting is that this is what happens when you announce government policy on a key issue by writing an article in a newspaper (even if it is the Financial Times) rather than making a statement to Parliament.
MPs should be up in arms about the disrespect shown to them by waiting until the week of their summer holidays began to sneak this out, especially since it has been 13 months since the referendum, and the only practical step the government is taking is to ask the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to examine the evidence about the impact of free movement on the economy. As several people pointed out, that should have been done before the referendum, and certainly before the government started the process to leave the EU. It’s remarkable it couldn’t have been done a week earlier, at least, so MPs could hear it first.
So when do they want to end freedom of movement?
The main area of confusion is about when exactly free movement is supposed to end (although so many exemptions for sectors like construction, agriculture, health, coffee bars etc have been asked for and offered by Ministers that free movement might as well continue to exist). Amber Rudd seemed to be suggesting that it would continue for two or three years after the UK formally leaves the EU in March 2019, but Brandon Lewis said it would definitely end at that point.
There’s nothing in the Home Office statement yesterday, nor in the letter to the MAC, either way. (We’re also totally in the dark about the proposal that European migrants should ‘register’ if they arrive after March 2019 – it might be a good idea, but until we find out what it means, who can say?)
But if Philip Hammond’s plan for a transitional period of two to three years after March 2019 – during which the UK will stay in the single market and customs union – is implemented (as the TUC has been advocating), then free movement would have to continue during that period as well.
So that’s all clear then…
What happens on migration?
The TUC is very pleased to see the MAC being given the job it has, and we will be using the opportunity to stress the value that migrants make to public services, manufacturing, research and knowledge industries, and the economy generally. But we will also be drawing attention to the way bad employers exploit migrants and undercut existing workers’ terms and conditions, as well as making the case that the long-term solution to skill shortages is training, not migration.
As mentioned above, this evidence should have been commissioned long ago. But this is not the only area where the government has been dragging its feet on migration. Earlier this week I blogged for Labour List on measures that the government could take now to control migration – in particular by regulating the labour market to address exploitation and undercutting. We’re inching towards those steps, but no thanks to the government.
And what about our rights at work?
One step that needed taking – and which came up frequently at workplace meetings in the referendum campaign – was to make it easier for working people to enforce the rights they have under European employment laws. These laws were introduced essentially to balance the impact on workers of the freedom of movement of people and capital that the single market entails.
But if workers can’t make use of those rights, they are worthless, and that’s part of the loss of influence over their own lives that the Leave campaign brilliantly encapsulated in the “take back control” slogan.
This week it was fantastic that Unison’s challenge to Employment Tribunal fees in the Supreme Court was successful – but no thanks to the government which introduced and defended the fees even when the evidence clearly showed that the fees had prevented people from exercising their legal rights.
Another area where we said the government could take action was to end the so-called ‘Swedish derogation’ which means that many agency workers are paid less than the regular workforce doing the exact same job. Employers often use this exemption to employ migrant workers on lower wages, and it needs to go. The Taylor Review which reported earlier this month recommended that the derogation be scrapped. But the government has no plans yet to do so. Why don’t they just get on with it?
It’s good to talk…
Finally, the Home Secretary announced, in a statement on which no one had been consulted, that she would in future consult unions as well as businesses and others on her migration plans. We genuinely can’t wait (any longer).