Regional migration policies for the UK could require a restructuring of UK government, devolving significant powers to new regional government institutions in the English regions, a new report from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford says today. Regional policies could be implemented more easily in areas where these structures already exist – notably Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – albeit at the cost of a more complex immigration system.
The report ‘Location, Location, Location: Should Different Parts of the UK have Different Migration Policies?’ considers arguments for and against regional migration policies, which have gained increasing political traction in recent years. The report concludes that regional work permits can be implemented in the UK, but that doing so democratically could require a whole new system of regional government. It would not be feasible at the local authority level, and would therefore require regional bureaucracies for large sub-national areas. While these exist in differing forms in the devolved nations of the UK, they do not currently exist across all the English regions.
The report also argues that the process of setting migration levels or targets for different parts of the UK would be inherently subjective because there is no agreed way of identifying what constitutes a regional “labour shortage” – much less one that requires international migration as a solution rather than other mechanisms, such as increased wages or mechanisation.
The report finds that a common argument against regional visas – that they would be unenforceable and create a “back door” for migrant workers to work illegally in other parts of the country – is not convincing. This is because there are easier ways for people who are willing to work illegally in the UK to gain entry, such as tourist visas. Regional visas could be designed in the same way as existing work visas, such as Tier 2 visas, which already tie migrants to particular jobs and have not been a particular source of concern when it comes to enforcement.
Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said: “Immigration policies that respond to the needs of local areas make sense in theory, but implementing them in practice would be a complex process. Unlike the devolved administrations, the English regions currently don’t have the political institutions that would be needed for democratic input into migration policy, and introducing them across the whole of England would be big project that would have to be driven by an overall desire for increased localism in British politics as a whole.
“There’s no objective way to agree what regional economic needs for migration actually are, so it’s difficult to know whether greater regional control would bring economic benefits. Any benefits would have to be weighed against the administrative costs of moving to a more complicated immigration system.”
Funding for this report comes from the UK in a Changing Europe’s Brexit research project which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The Migration Observatory’s work on post-Brexit immigration policy is also made possible with the support of Trust for London and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.