Devolve immigration powers to UK regions, say parliamentarians

6 Jan 17

The government should consider devolving responsibility for immigration policy to the UK’s regions and new metropolitan areas to boost integration and economic productivity, a committee of MPs and peers has said.

This would involve reforming the current ‘one-size-fits-all’ immigration system with a view to actively shaping immigrant settlement patterns within the UK.

These are among the recommendations of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration, which published its interim report yesterday on how the UK’s immigration system could more effectively promote integration.

Chuka Umunna, Labour MP and group chair, said: “We must confront the fact that immigrant communities and members of the settled population in some parts of modern Britain are leading parallel rather than interconnected lives”, an issue which “has been swept under the carpet for too long.”

The UK immigration system has been under particular scrutiny up to and following the Brexit vote last year, and confusion still reigns over the future visa status of the estimated three million EU citizens living and working in the UK.

The report recommends six principles that could be incorporated into the existing system in order to help communities accommodate difference, successfully manage change, and “thrive in an interconnected world”.

Among them is the idea of directing population flows to areas of the country that require higher levels of immigration or do not currently attract a great many immigrants. This might afford policymakers the opportunity to ease the strain on public services and community relations while bolstering regional economies.

The report found that ‘one-size-fits-all’ immigration systems tend to promote “lopsided patterns of chain migration”, whereby new migrants move to places where other migrants have recently settled. This can prevent some regions from reaping the economic benefits of immigration and can hinder integration – since immigrants lack an immediate imperative to learn the native language or local cultural practices.

The APPG suggested the Canadian immigration system could be used as a model for UK policymakers. In Canada, each provincial government is empowered to set region-specific requirements for immigrants under Provincial Nominee Programmes.

PNPs enable local governments to address labour shortages in certain fields and industries and to enforce place-specific cultural criteria. Immigrants are required to remain within the region that approves their visa until they become eligible to apply for Canadian citizenship.

According to the report, the only notable concession to the specific needs of constituent nations built into the UK immigration system is the Scottish ‘shortage occupation list’. This allows employers to offer jobs to non-EU nationals without first advertising them domestically.

Consequently, the group advises the government to appoint an independent commission to explore whether powers of economic immigration, as devolved to Scotland, could be extended to Wales, Northern Ireland, London and the new metro regions in England. For example, region or sector-specific visas could be created, quotas for which would be set by city regions or devolved administrations.

Such changes could add a positive note to the predominantly negative media messages around the immigration issue. A regionally led approach may also give the public more confidence that immigration policy is working to support their area, rather than being a generic ‘shield’ to prevent too many people coming into the country. 

Among the report’s other recommendations are a requirement for local authorities to be required to promote integration in their areas and for immigrants to be compelled to have a reasonable grasp of the English language.   

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