Anthony Browne is a former director of Policy Exchange and a former Europe correspondent of the Times.
If there is one issue that caused Brexit more than any other, it is immigration – or more specifically, the ability of the government to control the borders.
The minor but politically iconic issue of having to pay child benefit to EU citizens working in the UK even though their children don’t live here caused a media storm, and was at the centre of David Cameron’s renegotiation before the 2016 referendum. Then, when the referendum came, most pollsters suggest that freedom of movement was a major contributor to the Brexit victory.
The Government is now promising to end freedom of movement, and has proposed a new immigration system that is tougher on unskilled workers and more open for skilled workers, and makes no distinction between EU citizens and non-EU. But UK governments have struggled with many other immigration issues because of EU rules – ranging from access to benefits for the unemployed or lowly-paid EU citizens in the UK; the ability to impose conditions on speaking English on EU doctors; the expulsion of EU criminals, and the rights of EU citizens living in the UK to bring in non-EU spouses.
In some cases, the Government hasn’t used powers that it actually has – but its regular tussles with the EU over immigration issues sends out the message to voters that it doesn’t control the borders. However, come Brexit, Parliament will be able to decide the rules, and the Government will be able to enforce them. It will be clear to voters that their government has control, and hopefully that will help reduce political concerns over immigration.
Let’s return to the issue that in part prompted the referendum – namely the paying of child benefits to children who do not live in the UK. The scale of it is small – 33,000 children living outside the UK receiving, about £30 million from taxpayers – but what was more serious was that, despite the media storm, and despite the Government wanting to change the rules, Ministers were powerless to do so. This is not what voters want to hear, and it damages confidence in our political system as a whole.
As part of his renegotiation of UK membership of the EU, David Cameron got agreement partially to reduce (though not stop) these benefits payments to children living outside the UK. That change to the rules was dropped when the UK voted for Brexit. But once it happens, the Government and Parliament will have the power to stop the practice.
If the Government is more clearly in control of the borders, and there is reduced political concern about immigration as a result, it will be free to have a more pragmatic and economically beneficial policy. For example, the Government will only be able to justify its plans to relax rules for skilled workers from around the world if it is simultaneously introducing controls on unskilled EU workers.
Some people supported Brexit primarily because they believed it could lead to a more internationally balanced immigration system – rather than one with no restrictions, say, on Romanians and Bulgarians, but lots of restrictions on Australians. This is now in effect what the Government is planning. In short, Brexit isn’t just about ending freedom of movement: by letting the Government control of our borders, it should lead to a better and fairer system overall.