UKIP’s stance on controlling immigration has been subject to ongoing public and political scrutiny for years. Now, at last, the party’s manifesto has outlined its policies and how they would be achieved in greater detail.
UKIP claims that the only way for the UK to control its borders is to leave the European Union. Since the UK remains in the EU, UKIP’s immigration policies are bound to abide by the EU’s fundamental principle of free movement of people – but they also seek to significantly reduce immigration.
The party is proposing an Australian-style points-based immigration system. All migrants would need to have insurance to access the health system, and migrants would not be allowed to claim benefits in the UK unless they had paid into the system for five years and obeyed the law.
According to Nigel Farage, the resulting “big reduction in numbers” coming to the UK would relieve pressure on schools, hospitals and houses.
While it may be the case that lower immigration would take some pressure off services (and even that is not clear), reducing immigration could have serious negative effects too. Don’t forget that migrants put a lot back into the UK economy through taxes, for instance.
Capping, scoring and banning
Instead of clarifying the party’s immigration plans, UKIP’s manifesto adds to the confusion.
For example, it pledges to reinstate a 50,000-a-year cap on skilled immigrants, even though Farage scrapped the concept of immigration targets just a few weeks earlier. This cap would be achieved through a points system for skilled workers.
But it’s not clear why UKIP would want to reduce skilled migration. Many important jobs in the UK are undertaken by migrants; it is claimed that the NHS would be in “dire straits” without them.
In a globalised world, it is increasingly important to have a diverse and multi-lingual workforce, particularly in the business sector. Capping skilled immigration would greatly reduce the possibilities of diverse interactions in the workplace, and could seriously undercut the UK’s economic competitiveness.
But critically, UKIP’s manifesto does not clarify who exactly is classed as a skilled worker or how the points system would work. That means we cannot know which migrants would actually be prevented from entering the UK according to this policy.
Would it restrict the access of self-employed migrants who may run delicatessens or construction firms? Whether or not they’re classed as skilled, they can provide jobs for both other migrants and unemployed, unskilled British workers. In towns and cities throughout the UK, run-down streets have been transformed by new migrant-owned businesses, paying rates to local councils and driving local economies. Under UKIP’s proposals such migrants may be prevented from entering the UK altogether.
UKIP’s manifesto also proposes a five-year immigration ban on unskilled workers. Again, while this would reduce immigration flows, it would leave a great many unfilled jobs in areas such as agriculture and hospitality, which are significantly staffed by migrants. Since many of them are taking unskilled jobs British people do not want to do, the result could be a serious labour shortage in temporary and seasonal work.
That’s if it is, in fact, their plan. UKIP’s policy chief, Suzanne Evans, caused a stir on the day of the launch by appearing to propose that some unskilled farm workers could be allowed into the UK “if they are needed”.
UKIP’s policy not to allow migrants to claim benefits in the UK without paying into the system for five years first would probably do little to deter potential immigrants from coming. The evidence shows that decisions to migrate to the UK are generally not motivated by the opportunity to claim benefits.
Similarly, migrants generally do not come to the UK to access the NHS. So while requiring them to have insurance before accessing the health system and restricting benefits might relieve some pressure on services, it would probably do nothing to reduce immigration numbers.
UKIP’s immigration policies are aimed at reducing immigration to the greatest extent possible given the UK is still in the EU. The manifesto policies as written would certainly do that to some extent.
But given the complexity of the situation, the lack of explanation of the points system, and the potential cost to the UK labour market and the economy, it’s hard to know what UKIP is really driving at.