Immigration reform through labour regulations

Many have suggested free movement between the EU and the UK should not survive Brexit because it would continue to facilitate the kind of large-scale immigration from Europe that people specifically voted to end.

It’s certainly true that many are hostile to low-skilled immigration, of which there is a significant amount from the EU, though there is much more support for higher-skilled immigration. This hostility isn’t necessarily the product of xenophobia – there are legitimate concerns about downward pressure on jobs, wages, healthcare, housing, and welfare – and about the pace of cultural change in communities where thousands of new immigrants can arrive in a very short space of time. These concerns should be taken seriously.

But is wholesale immigration reform actually necessary to reduce migrant numbers? One of the most common answers I’ve heard to the immigration question during the course of this project is that labour regulation reform would be sufficient to address the concerns people have.
What exactly does this mean?

Firstly it means cracking down on companies and recruitment agencies that fail to advertise jobs in Britain and instead go straight to Eastern Europe and elsewhere. It also means cracking down on false self-employment and raising the minimum wage, which should make low-wage jobs more appealing to British workers.

If this plan succeeds, it might mean any changes to free movement with the EU are rendered unnecessary, assuming addressing public concerns over immigrant numbers is our main objective.

However, the picture is a little more complex than this proposal perhaps allows. Arguably, what people are looking for more than reducing immigration policy to a numbers game, is greater control. Interfering with the supply and demand of immigration from Europe wouldn’t necessarily address this concern, but introducing reforms such as yearly quotas for low-skilled migration probably would.

The proposal is also untested. What impact would raising the minimum wage really have, for example? Would it really be enough to motivate British workers to pick strawberries and perform other jobs they may consider undesirable? Or would it actually increase the financial draw for workers from overseas? There’s really no way to know unless we go ahead and try it.

Reforming labour regulations should most certainly be part of the equation when we’re looking at addressing the post-Brexit immigration question, but it may not be the whole picture. Whatever the case, we must ensure that whatever immigration system emerges after Brexit, it is underpinned by progressive principles rather than the reactionary politics that gave us the net migration target and other senseless policies.


Andrew Noakes is the Director of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights

This article was originally written for our dedicated Brexit and Human Rights Campaign 


Briefing: Making the Case for Legal Aid

In our latest briefing, we argue that access to legal aid is crucial in ensuring that human rights protection is a reality for all. We encourage Labour MPs and members to continue to campaign for positive change to the provision of legal aid and access to justice.

You can read it here.

Written by Charlotte Blackbourn, Campaigns Volunteer, LCHR
Edited by Tom McNeil, Director for Human Rights Act Campaign, LCHR  

Exploring the EFTA template: How Labour can overcome the impasse on citizens’ rights.

Despite persistent calls from Labour and various citizens’ campaign groups to ringfence the rights of the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK and the 1.2 million Britons living in EU countries, they are now seemingly stuck within the posturing and trade-offs of the Brexit negotiations.

Theresa May’s “serious and generous offer” centres around all EU citizens in the UK having to apply for a rebranded version of the indefinite leave to remain status currently available for non-EU citizens. It was met with near-universal disappointment, as it would result in a de-facto reduction of current rights for EU citizens, such as freedom of movement and the ability to emigrate with a family member.

The offer therefore fundamentally differs from the EU’s desire to see EU citizens continue to enjoy the “same level of protection as in EU law”, or in the words of one senior official – to live “as if Brexit never happened.”

But perhaps the most significant point of conflict stems from Theresa May’s red-line demand that European courts will no longer have jurisdiction over anyone living in the UK, and that the rights of EU citizens will be incorporated into the framework of British law. This is completely antithetical to the EU’s demand that “the Court of Justice of the European Union should have full jurisdiction corresponding to the duration of the protection of citizen’s rights.”

The EU have valid reasons for wanting their citizens to remain in the UK based on their EU treaty rights. If, as the UK government proposed, the rights of EU citizens were enshrined only in UK law and determined only by UK courts, they would be extremely vulnerable to unilateral future changes by the UK parliament.

This stand-off over citizens’ rights demonstrates a conundrum that Labour simply cannot shy away from. However vague and inaccurate some of the referendum promises were, one of the powerful overarching messages of the Leave campaign was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”.

Labour has consistently proposed a solution which first and foremost guarantees the rights of EU citizens to reside, work and to be treated equally in the countries that they have built their lives. Yet to realise this, Labour must also formulate a mechanism for enforcing these rights which simultaneously respects the referendum’s call for sovereignty whilst bridging the sizeable gap between the UK and EU’s stance on legal jurisdiction.

A solution may, surprisingly, be found by revisiting an under-discussed element of the divisive ‘Norway option’. Whether the UK should seek a similar economic relationship with the EU as the Economic Free Trade Association countries (Iceland, Norway and Lichtenstein), has been a subject of much debate. Yet setting aside economics, the model of international legal arbitration that presides over the relationship may provide a template that will enable the EU and UK to overcome its impasse on citizens’ rights.

The EFTA Court is an international body which interprets and applies laws that govern the relationship between EEA members and the EU. As the judges are appointed by common accord of all participating nations, a similar body governing Britain’s withdrawal from the EU would likely assuage European fears that the rights of its current citizens will be at the mercy of future British legislators. Yet crucially, the EFTA court is comprised solely of judges appointed by the government of the three member countries, and unlike in the EU, there is no supranational panel scrutinising the nominees. Bearing in mind that a degree of sovereignty must inevitably be sacrificed in the legal arbitration of international agreements, an EFTA style judicial arrangement offers a realistic compromise whilst maintaining a high degree of British sovereignty.

Labour has rightly opposed the government’s willingness to leave millions of citizens in the dark regarding the future protection of their rights. But to help guarantee these rights in practice, it must show that it can be more flexible and creative than the red-line approach taken by Theresa May. Advocating for an EFTA-style international body to guard over the rights of citizens may offer the common ground which is desperately needed to move the negotiations forward, and secure the rights of millions living in the UK and Europe.


Joe Duffy is the Campaign Intern for the Labour Campaign for Human Rights.

This article was originally published as part of our dedicated Brexit and Human Rights Campaign.

Beyond the transition period: working towards a post-Brexit immigration system that serves Britain’s long-term interests.

Recent reports that the cabinet had united behind a transitionary period for freedom of movement seemed like a rare flicker of certainty amongst the government’s chaotic Brexit negotiations. Amid fears that decades of precedent could instantly disappear over a ‘cliff-edge’, few would disagree that a transitionary period could be helpful.

Yet this was all extinguished when Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis confirmed that free movement of labour will end the second that we leave the EU in the spring of 2019. Lewis also reiterated the government’s farcical aim to reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’.

Perhaps the most difficult balancing act that Brexit has demanded of politicians is that of creating an immigration system which protects human rights and serves Britain’s long-term interests whilst fulfilling the mandate for ‘taking back control’ of UK borders and sovereignty. The government’s U-turn on freedom of movement demonstrates the power of the Tory right to call the shots and push us down a path that will cause irreversible damage to the cohesion of our communities and our standing on the global stage.

The invaluable contribution that immigrants make to our country cannot be doubted. Freedom of movement enabled European immigrants to contribute over £20bn to the economy in a single decade, plugging our skill gaps with human capital that would have cost the UK £6.8bn in education.

Businesses up and down the country have highlighted the necessity of a flexible immigration system which does not encumber necessary overseas recruitment with excessive fees, with Sadiq Khan expressing concerns that the uncertainty regarding freedom of movement has been hampering business recruitment.

Yet the government’s track record on immigration policy, coupled with the post-election increase in the authority of backbench Brexit hardliners, raises the likely and worrying scenario that the government will prioritise arbitrary reductions in net migration over a system which harnesses its benefits.

Theresa May’s immigration policies for those living outside the European Economic Area have been notoriously harsh and rigid, leading two of Britain’s largest non-EU trading partners to suggest that entry rules must be relaxed if Britain expects to agree a trade deal. Now that EU citizens are also likely to be subject to UK immigration law, it seems likely that her government’s instinct to deter migration at any cost will undo hard-fought rights and damage our economy for generations to come.

In order to respect the referendum outcome, Labour has declared that continuing freedom of movement in its current form is not an option. But to square the circle of controlling migration whilst ensuring prosperity and protecting human rights, Labour must push for a system that enables the flexibility required to benefit all areas of our economy and regions of our country.

If Labour advocates for a system that closely resembles freedom of movement, such as welcoming all those with a job offer or installing the option for a temporary brake in immigration, it is crucial that the system is safeguarded against worker exploitation – an issue which the party leadership already appears to be aware. Labour has also recognised the need for flexibility by focusing on a “bespoke”, “jobs first” deal, enabled by a “tailored mix” of approaches including employer sponsorships, work permits and visa regulations.

In contrast, the Tory’s policy of attracting only the ‘brightest and the best’ lacks the nuance that our industries require, and their track record on immigration raises doubts that essential rights will be adequately defended. Labour must use every ounce of its newfound parliamentary strength to ensure that we are planning for a post-Brexit system that looks beyond the transitionary period and prioritises jobs and protections equally and indefinitely.

Joe Duffy is the Campaign Intern for the Labour Campaign for Human Rights

This article was initially published for our dedicated Brexit and Human Rights Campaign

Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ relies on collaborators – now is the time for opposition

From the NHS to homeless charities, the true extent of the government’s ‘border on every corner’ policy is now clearer than ever
In October 2013, then-Home Secretary Theresa May launched her flagship immigration bill. One of its key features was to require immigration checks to be carried out before anyone could open a new bank account, be issued with a driving licence or access routine health treatment. This would mean everybody, British nationals, EEA nationals and third country nationals alike, would have to produce identity documents to do so.

The bill also introduced a ‘deport first, appeal later’ policy for thousands facing removal from the UK, and reduced grounds for appeal. This was all part of a wider strategy to, in May’s own words, “create a really hostile environment for illegal migrants”.

In 2017, Theresa May’s premiership is hanging by a thread, but the ‘hostile environment’ she nurtured could continue to thrive if the opposition do not challenge it. The Conservative Party Manifesto 2017 announced its intention to “continue to bear down on immigration from outside the European Union” as well as reducing the number of people coming from the European Union. Labour has said that, unlike the Conservatives, it will not set itself unrealistic targets such as reducing immigration to the tens of thousands. But so far there has not been a great deal of discussion from either party on the more complex details of post-Brexit immigration policy.

The legislation which is currently driving May’s hostile approach is the 2016 Immigration Act. The Act gives immigration enforcement officers increased police-like powers, and has created more stringent requirements for employers, landlords and banks to check people’s immigration status. It is thus a criminal offence for a landlord to knowingly rent premises to an illegal migrant – if found guilty, the landlord could face up to five years in prison. Similarly, employers who hire illegal migrants and the workers themselves could face criminal sanctions.

In this respect it creates incentives for British citizens to report migrants to the government. And herein lies a significant factor fuelling the ‘hostile environment’: collaboration.

This was picked up on by the Labour Party in its 2017 Manifesto. In the ‘Border Security’ section, it argues that the Conservatives “want to turn private sector landlords, teachers, medical staff and other public-sector workers into unpaid immigration officers, forcing them to provide information to the authorities.” But this is not just a possible future scenario; it is already a reality.

There have been several exposés recently which have revealed that supposedly independent and confidential organisations have been working with the Home Office to gather incriminating evidence on potential immigration offenders which, in some cases, has led to deportation.

In January 2017 it was made public that the Home Office had obtained the personal data of thousands of NHS patients as part of its crackdown on illegal immigration. In this shocking news, the Guardian reported that the number of requests from the Home Office for patient data of suspected immigration offenders had increased threefold since 2014. Whilst medical records are protected by data protection laws, the Home Office has made use of a little-noted exemption in the rules to access patients’ non-clinical records, without any need for a court order.

Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott labelled this “unacceptable”, adding that “We have already seen this Government using schools to gather immigration data on children. Now we find they are using the NHS in the same way”.

Indeed, the government has implemented a toxic ‘border on every corner’ policy, whereby a wider set of organisations are being required to report to the Home Office. Where the 2016 Immigration Act enlisted employers and landlords as essentially its second-tier immigration force, now this is being extended to public services such as the NHS.

Considering the cuts to border security under Theresa May’s watch, perhaps it is unsurprising that the government is forcing other agencies to ‘fill in’ by undertaking the role of immigration officers.

Even the Third Sector has been implicated, as news has spread that homeless charities, such as St Mungo’s, have been reporting rough-sleeping undocumented migrants to the Home Office.

This was revealed in some detail by Corporate Watch, who recently launched a report highlighting its concerns about the links between homeless charities and immigration enforcement. The purpose of these charities is to help vulnerable people; instead, through a creeping set of changes, they are becoming informers.

Charity bosses claim that their aim is to help non-UK rough sleepers to leave “voluntarily”, but the FOI figures show that detention and enforced deportation are more common, and so-called “voluntary” departures are carried out under the threat of force.

Theresa May was not granted the ‘blank cheque’ that she was seeking in the snap General Election, and is clinging to power by the skin of her teeth. She must be prevented from acting on the draconian immigration policies outlined in the Tory manifesto. With the new parliamentary arithmetic, Labour also has an opportunity to challenge the worst excesses of the current system. Now is the time to do so, and to ensure that our streets, our charities, our schools, and NHS, are no longer used to enforce an illiberal agenda.
Cara Priestley is a Campaign Volunteer with the Labour Campaign for Human Rights

LCHR’s Response to the Government’s Policy Paper on Citizens’ Rights

Last week saw the first government pronouncement on the impact of Brexit upon citizens’ rights after a year defined by uncertainty for the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK and 1.2 million expats living in Europe. Yet despite the titular promise to finally “safeguard” the rights of these citizens, the proposal falls short in many crucial areas – creating a credibility gap that Labour must be prepared to fill.

The proposed “settled status” system was met with disappointment from negotiators, campaigners and citizens alike, with Michel Barnier calling for “more ambition, clarity and guarantees.” As well as making the cut-off date up for debate, the key difference is that whilst the EU wishes to guarantee the exact continuation of rights for UK citizens, the UK demands the incorporation of both groups into the framework of British law. This would result in a reduction of current rights, such as freedom of movement and the ability to emigrate with a family member.

The decision to intentionally begin negotiations with a proposal significantly under the EU’s offer is guaranteed to extend the protracted anxiety of millions. The fact that those who are most affected could not vote for Brexit, and that 77% of leave voters supported letting EU migrants stay, means that ensuring continued residence is a matter of moral urgency. Gambling with the lives of those who have most to lose from the negotiations is as needless as it is damaging.

Much of the outcry has centred around the proposals’ lack of “detail and clarity” regarding exactly how rights would be protected. The government document is littered with vague language prefixing essential rights, such as the hazy promise to “seek to protect” healthcare rights. It is unclear why the government would wish to leave themselves such legal wriggle room in their “serious and generous offer” to secure the rights of 4 million individuals.

The proposal does have some welcome elements, particularly the commitment to drop the requirement for comprehensive sickness insurance and the indication that applying for settled status will be as “light touch” as possible.

However, this will only form the tip of the bureaucratic mountain of immigration protocol that the Brexit select committee recently labelled as “disproportionately burdensome.” The government must expand on this commitment if they are to shake off the suspicion that their immigration system is designed to deter, rather than to control.

Much of the impasse stems from the mistrust with which Europe sees the UK’s immigration system, which is hardly unwarranted given Theresa May’s creation of a “hostile environment” as Home Secretary, and her government’s pointless, divisive drive towards reducing immigration to the “tens of thousands”. The UK’s particularly harsh spousal migration policy has been at the centre of disputes, as it provides a tangible example of how British law would reduce the rights of EU and UK citizens living abroad.

Following the government’s proposal, Labour has a clear opportunity to become the party of a logical and humane Brexit.

To ensure this, Labour must continue its year-long campaign to unilaterally guarantee the exact continuation of rights for EU citizens, a stance that has been vindicated by the EU’s mirror offer for UK citizens.

Where the government seeks to hide behind technicalities and vague language, Labour must be unequivocal and robust in its assurances of citizens’ rights.

Above all, Labour must escalate its brave commitment to sweeping immigration reform that saw the manifesto promise to scrap the aforementioned spousal migration threshold. By recognising that we are at a moment of national reflection, Labour can maximise its newfound position of strength to push for an immigration system that is universally fit for purpose in a post-Brexit world.

Joe Duffy is the Campaign Intern for the Labour Campaign for Human Rights. 

This article was written as part of our dedicated Brexit and Human Rights Campaign.