Ending rights, supporting rights – What’s best for the future of immigration policy?

Don Flynn -MRN

Don Flynn -MRN

Just one day after the government sets out its proposals to continue to bear down on immigration in the Queen’s speech the European Commission comes up with a set of proposals which are intended to pull policy in another direction altogether.

The government’s plans are informed by the view that migrants, particularly those from other EU member states, are attracted to the UK by the level of social welfare support available in this country. The solution to this imagined problem is to hack away at the qualifications that need to be met to access Job Seekers Allowance, free treatment from the NHS, and assistance from legal aid in civil disputes. They even hope for a chilling effect on the availability of accommodation in the private rented sector which will come when lettings agency start demanding to see passports.

In the heart-of-heart, even the most ardent supporter of the coalition administration knows that this will have no impact on the numbers coming to the UK. Migrants are attracted to this country for one principle reason – and that revolves around the jobs and the business opportunities which are seen to exist in the free-for-all hurly-burly of UK markets. No Romanian, Italian, German, or whoever, will be deterred by the loss of opportunities to register with GPs for treatment on the NHS as long as they feel a job in Britain will secure better prospects than they have in their own country.

More rights, better migration
Meanwhile, the European Commission, which is obliged to look at the situation from the standpoint of an authority charged with the job of getting the single market up and running again to support economic growth across the continent, has arrived at the opposite conclusion as to what needs to be done about migration between member states.

In the Commission’s view a big part of the problems which exist across the European region at the present time would be addressed if citizens could be persuaded to make more use of the rights which have been bestowed on them through the agency of the EU over the course of the last two decades.

The argument here is that people should not remain in places where their prospects for the future are bleak simply because their residency entitles them to a degree of welfare support which compensates to a small degree for the hardship they are suffering. Of course, one way of addressing this would be to simply abolish all these rights and entitlements and thereby force, under the threat of starvation, entire populations to ‘get on their bikes’ to look for opportunities further afield.

The Commission proposes another route, which is to make a larger portion of the entitlements people have in their home states portable, so that they can take the social security they have secured in one place to another, where there are greater opportunities for jobs and businesses.

What the Commission calls for is new 12 policies in six areas where action is needed. Examples of these are:

Removing obstacles for workers, students and trainees in the EU by extending the right of jobseekers to receive unemployment benefits from their home country while they are looking for a job in another EU member state beyond the current mandatory three months to increase the mobility of workers; Cutting red tape in the Member States
Cutting red tape for businesses by facilitating the acceptance of identity and residence documents when citizens want to travel or have to prove their identity in another EU country, including through optional uniform European documents that citizens could use in all EU countries;
Protecting the more vulnerable in the EU by developing an EU disability card, and strengthening citizens’ procedural rights;
Eliminating barriers to shopping in the EU by improving rules to settle cross-border disputes over small amounts when buying products online or in another EU country;
Promoting the availability of targeted and accessible information about the EU by making e-training tools available to local administrations and providing citizen-friendly information about who to turn to solve their problems.
Strengthening citizens’ participation in the democratic process.

It seems hard to see how the viewpoints of two bodies with responsibility to drafting sensible policies aimed at promoting access to jobs and improving the welfare of citizens could be so much at variance. Can we get any clues from outside the charmed circles of government as to what might really be the best way to proceed?

We could look at the work of the Business for New Europe group, which describes itself “as a coalition of business leaders articulating a positive case for reform in Europe” published a report on the day of the Queen’s speech entitled Migration – Making it Work.

The BNE report sets out a ‘myth-busting’ list which challenges public misconceptions on immigration, which include whether migrants impose an unsustainable cost to the public purse, the idea that migrants are ‘benefit tourists’, the need for the skills and talents which migrants bring to the UK, and the youth and high level of economic activity amongst the newcomers.

Their conclusions are firmly on the positive side of the picture – migrants are net contributors to public welfare and they bring skills and energy that help business and services grow.

The BNE argues the case for solutions to what it calls the ‘triple lock’ on migration policy in Europe, which cover the themes of benefits and work, health and housing, and crime. In my view the positions taken here do too much to under the case BNE had been at pains to make on the issue of migrants as net contributors to the public welfare. The proposal to end entitlement to JSA after six months seems to fit into an agenda which aims at ending the safety net of the social security system altogether, rather than addressing anything to do with immigration.
…and unions
It would be nice to think that the stimulating blogs often posted on the TUC’s Touchstone site really do represent mainstream thinking in the trade union movement. A comment by policy officer Rosa Crawford on the Queen’s speech yesterday again tackles the themes of ‘benefit tourism’ and comes to the same conclusions as the business lobby group, that is doesn’t exist in reality.

Crawford hints at the response that is really needed to the loss of rights which is threatened in the Queen’s speech. People and organisations which are looking to promote the interests of working people should be dealing with these issues by defending the NHS as an accessible service for all who need treatment. She also argues for action to promote decent employment across the entirety of the labour market is what is really needed if we are really looking to see new investments of energy and commitment from the majority segments of the population that earns its living from waged employment.

So, the scene is set for a public debate which places the coalition government in the extreme position of wanting to dampen down on migration by the wholesale removal of rights at one extreme, and employers lobby which wants migration but is prepared to negotiate away rights somewhere in the middle, and trade union views plus the European Commission which says that securing rights for mobile people is the key to getting the economy moving again.

The viewpoints couldn’t be more interesting and diverse. All that’s needed is the evidence to guide us in one direction or the other, and it might very well down to groups and organisations much closer to the grassroot lives of local communities to provide us with that.

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