Some critics of Brexit have a political incentive to create the impression that the UK is anti-immigration: it immediately makes Brexit seems immoral or at least unpleasant. The truth is that nobody serious wants immigration to this country to end. We Britons are by nature a welcoming and hospitable people. It was the apparent loss of control that drove part of the vote to Leave. As we regain that ‘control’, we would do well to remember that it comes with responsibility.
The United Kingdom’s points-based, five-tier visa system is the main avenue through which migrants from outside the EEA must go in order to study, train, work or invest in the UK. When we finally leave the European Union, however, a new system must come into being, and we should dedicate some serious thought to the look and structure of that system – with one golden rule. It must be fair to everyone. It has always sat uneasily with me that, since Maastricht, our immigration policy suggests that European citizens are inherently more valuable than those from further afield. Europeans can come and go as they please, while Africans or Asians must jump through hoop after hoop. It is, by definition, a discriminatory system.
The alternative is more simpler and more moral – we should treat immigrants equally wherever they’re from.
Yet whatever form the new system takes, it will only succeed if the Home Office does its job ethically. A good example of ths behaviour was the decision to take refugees directly from Syria, not those who had already found safe harbour in European countries – it was sensible, smart and humanitarian. But by contrast, the horrible treatment of the Windrush generation highlighted a fundamental misunderstanding of immigration concern. People are not anti-immigrant, they are anti-bad policy and the long-term consequences of it. If Home Office officials thought the best way to ease those concerns was to kick out our friends, colleagues and neighbours then there is surely a question as to whether those officials are the right people to develop the UK’s future policy.
But questions over the Home Office go beyond the headline-grabbing issues of Brexit and Windrush. I’ve heard of several examples of individuals working in the UK perfectly legally who have suffered the unannounced arrival of officials in their offices to check they had the right papers. These spot checks may work in extreme cases, particularly if exploitation or modern slavery is suspected, but when it’s ordinary people sat at their desks doing their jobs it is beyond the pale.
For the maritime sector in which I work, the question of immigration has particular importance. Many UK shipping companies are world-leading, and many more are ambitious to become so. But if you plan to become a global company then you will need a global workforce. If businesses are to compete and grow around the world, we need to recognise they will need to move staff between offices with relative ease. An employee in a new Chinese office, for example, might need to come to the UK headquarters for six months or a year to learn about their employer. Government must recognise this is a vital part of corporate development.
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Anyone who has worked within the shipping industry quickly develops a deep respect for the benefits of international trade. Trade has lifted billions of people out of poverty and presented opportunities for brave and ambitious individuals. Trade therefore is as humanitarian as it is economic. The phrase ‘Global Britain’ implies we are to enhance further our status as a flourishing, liberal, compassionate and internationalist trading nation. To achieve that, we should design an immigration policy hand in hand with our trade and investment policy.
It is clear that ‘Brexodus’ is not materialising, particularly in the City of London. We should take confidence from it, because we know that the brightest and best move to the UK not because it is in the EU but because it is a great place to live and do business.
But our capital is more than just banking. London is currently ranked fourth in the world for shipping and maritime services (and number one for some elements including maritime law). It is the location of the United Nations’ global regulator, the International Maritime Organisation and hundreds of other major international maritime trade bodies. It is the world’s only ‘one-stop-shop’ for all a shipowner’s services. But out of the 30 ‘top’ maritime cities, only seven (including London) are based in the EU, which means we give precedence to the free movement of workers between only 6 leading maritime countries and neglect the 23 other.
Many of these non-EU maritime countries are Commonwealth or former Commonwealth nations, with substantial ties to the UK in legal and cultural terms. Is it right that we make it so difficult to access this deep pool of non-European talent?
Brexit represents an opportunity to rebalance the immigration system to complement our homegrown talent and fulfil our global ambition. We should not seek to grow our economy simply by growing our population, that’s cheating. Instead we should focus on where immigration can add the highest possible value. In doing so, the bright minds of the most distant countries should be welcomed to our shores in the exact same way as those from our nearest neighbours. That is a worthy and productive goal.
Furthermore, it will serve to send a message to the world that we wish to emerge out of Brexit as a more tolerant, more globally minded and, in time, more successful United Kingdom.
Jonathan Roberts is director of communications for the UK Chamber of Shipping