What might a post-Brexit immigration system look like?
Our progressive counterparts in Canada demonstrate useful lessons for the UK
It was a pleasure to speak at the Global Progress conference in Montreal. Our mayor of London Sadiq Khan was there, putting London on the global stage, engaging in a conversation with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on how we can live in not only diverse communities but integrated ones as well. I was involved in leading a debate with Quebec’s minister for immigration, diversity and inclusiveness, Kathleen Weil, on the politics of inclusion in diverse societies.
It seems to me that, as progressives, we face a challenge of how we navigate our way through a debate on immigration in which, on the one hand the populist right suggests immigration is the root of all our problems, and on the other hand pro-immigration advocates wave graphs and data at people who feel left behind by globalisation, claiming population flux poses no challenge to local labour markets and community cohesion. In the real world, people’s experiences often lead them to take a different view. Our challenge as progressives is how to we heal the divides.
There is a lot we can learn from our Canadian counterparts. Their communities are far more integrated and cohesive, yet they have seen both historic and faster recent immigration levels. In order to reduce pressure on public services in immigration hotspots and create the conditions to foster social integration the Canadian federal government has introduced immigration policies encouraging the regional dispersal of migrants. While the last Labour government in the UK introduced the migration impacts fund, which was scrapped by the coalition government, it never went as far as prescribing the regional distribution of migrants – it was designed to react to gaps in services and funding as they appeared.
Canada’s points-based immigration system, which is comparable to the UK’s existing system for non-EU immigration, has been developed to accommodate differences between the specific demographic, economic and cultural requirements of each province, and therefore allows for regional policy and immigration controls. All 10 Canadian provincial governments are empowered to set region-specific requirements for immigrants. This enables these administrations to address labour shortages in certain fields and industries within their area, as well as limiting the pressure put on any one region. Migrants are required to reside within the region which approves their visa until they become eligible to apply for Canadian citizenship.
Such a system was partly designed to address the historical tendency of migrants to Canada to settle in the major cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. We find ourselves in a comparable situation in the UK with London, which according to ONS data is home to over a third of migrants to the UK. So there is room to develop such a system in the UK within our own devolution agenda of city deals, regional deals like the northern powerhouse, and devolved national governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The question is whether powers over economic migration, currently devolved in Scotland, can be extended further.
However, the greater challenge, notwithstanding where people migrate to, is ensuring that they become fully integrated in their new communities – the Canadian experience of immigration may again prove useful for British policymakers. While the Canadian system allows for regional and national limits on the number and skills of immigrants, the system also encourages regions wanting to attract the best talent and skills from around the world to make themselves appealing to immigrants with successful integration and welcome programmes. For example, regions and towns in British Columbia have been supported to design and launch ‘welcoming communities’ initiatives. These federally funded schemes offer regional government financial incentives to develop and execute strategies to attract migrants to live and work in their areas.
In recognition of the fact that rapid demographic and cultural change puts pressure on both public services and community relations, provincial governments receive federal funding for strategic infrastructural investments and programmes encouraging engagement between the host community and migrants. Again, there is the space to develop a similar strategy within our own devolution agenda of city deals, regional deals and devolved national governments.
The answer to crafting a post-Brexit immigration system which will work and be acceptable to both the 52 per cent of people who voted to leave, as well as the 48 per cent who voted to remain, is not as simple as producing a carbon copy from Canada, Australia or anywhere else. Nevertheless, our progressive counterparts in Canada demonstrate some useful lessons to the UK, showing that migration can pose challenges, but this need not be the case if you implement the right policies to manage it. For me, ensuring that newcomers who come to our country are properly integrated into our communities is absolutely at the heart of this. Only by recognising and dealing with that can we hope to create a new post-Brexit immigration system which will heal the divides in our country and bring leavers and remainers together.
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