Rosie Carter on the return of immigration to the headlines with Priti Patel’s announcement today to end freedom of movement and introduce an ‘Australian points-based system’.

Immigration is an issue that has seen a fall in public salience, but the political football that no party can seem to get right, is back in play.

A political move

Priti Patel claims that an Australian points-based system would be a more effective way to reduce immigration than the net migration target, which was never met, seems to overlook the fact that Australia introduced their points-based system in order to increase immigration.

Yet an ‘Australian points-based system’ plays well into the public debate. In the National Conversation on immigration, where we engaged around 20,000 people in conversations on the future of migration, we found that most people were often unclear about immigration policy. Participants in the citizens’ panels sometimes confused flows of EU citizens with refugee and asylum flows, which they felt were especially unregulated. The term ‘free movement’ was sometimes associated with an absence of criminal and security checks on foreign nationals, an issue of high public concern.

Despite very patchy knowledge among most people about immigration policy, the ‘Australian points-based system’ had caught on. Participants felt it typified a well-controlled and selective immigration system that meets the economy’s needs.

“I think bring in something like the Australian system. They’ve got it right to be honest. You can’t really move to Australia unless you’ve got some kind of trade or education, that you can bring to the country. For example, I had a friend who’s a barber, he’s not a rocket scientist but that’s how he was able to go because he could provide a service in Australia.” Citizens’ panel participant, Knowsley

People’s own experiences of themselves or friends and family visiting or emigrating to Australia was often one of the few visa systems they had encountered. Moreover, it seemed to meet the things people wanted from immigration controls; a system that treats people fairly, vetting against a standard to ensure that a state could then select the people a country needs, with a focus on the highly skilled.

People not numbers

However, our conversations across the country also showed how contradictory public opinion on immigration could be. People wanted migrants to contribute and become part of their local communities, and wanted to see a selective immigration system that looked at migrants as people rather than numbers.

Where you place the points in a points-based system is a political choice. Favouring highly skilled migrants feeds a narrative that some people are undesirable, but this is not necessarily something the public think. In our conversations across the country, people voiced a preference for highly skilled workers, but voiced support for all migration where it contributed, whatever migrants’ skill level.

This catchy policy title masks the realities of an end to free movement in Britain, and the introduction of this new system are unlikely to meet expectations.  A system that favours highly skilled and educated immigrants, especially if this is based on income requirements, will struggle to address the already acute labour shortages in the adult care sector, as well as certain industries, such as agriculture and food processing, which rely on ‘low-skilled’ migrant labour. All of this would have negative economic impacts.

Out of control

Moreover, taking an approach that sounds good won’t necessarily work in the long run. Hard talk on immigration not only whips up racism and xenophobia, but where expectations are unlikely to match the reality, result in further eroded public trust in the government’s ability to manage migration.

Just as the net migration target was best known for being missed, perceived as a failure of control, talking up unrealistic changes to migration policy will only set the scene for failure. People tend to see immigration as a national issue shone through a local lens, and if the local issues, such as inadequate infrastructure or exploitative landlords, are not addressed, expectations won’t align with realities.

At face value, an Australian points-based system looks like a sound political move, but it might only make things worse.