Equitable, holistic, depoliticised: Radical proposals for immigration policy

  • Election 24

Dr Erica Consterdine, Lancaster University 

In this piece, Dr Erica Consterdine, Lancaster University, discusses key immigration challenges and policy recommendations for the next UK Government.

The problem

The UK immigration system is dysfunctional. The UK has long relied on migrant workers to fill shortages in low paid sectors such as hospitality, agriculture, and social care. EU citizens had been filling many of these gaps until Brexit and the end of free movement. The Conservative governments have held a persistent, if now loosely defined, policy objective to reduce immigration, imploring businesses to raise wages and standards to appeal to British workers and fill labour demands.  The Labour opposition have advocated a similar position with leader Keir Starmer saying we need to ‘wean off our migration dependency’.

The result has been a widening gap between political rhetoric on reducing immigration, and policy that reactively responds to some labour demands. Yet many low paid sectors face shortages, the government has not increased public funds to address pay in key sectors (on the contrary decreasing in  social care), the system is burdensome, overly complex, and led to an alarming rise in exploitation. Meanwhile, there is a decline in public trust in the government on immigration and frustration at its failure to meet its self-imposed target.


Immigration has long been mobilised as a key issue in the political battleground. This has had a ratcheting effect of increasing saliency, increasing political attention and increasingly negative statements from politicians. As a result, immigration has been framed as a public problem leading to regressive policy.

The UK’s liberal market economy hinges on a flexible labour pool, low employment protection and a large low wage sector. In lieu of coordinated markets, with little incentive to provide training and align education systems with the labour market, employers have come to depend on migrant workers to undertake low paid work. It is a constructed dependence but nonetheless an institutional feature of the political economy to compensate for mismatches in the socio-economic regime. In higher education, following government changes to funding, loss of EU funding, and the continual decline of real value of domestic student fees, universities have come to rely on international student fees to stay afloat.

The political and economic demands combined have led to contradictory policy objectives and a governance structure not fit for purpose. Immigration is a multifaceted heterogenous phenomena that is affected by, and has spillover effects on, multiple policy sectors and therefore departmental remits. Yet the Home Office, which has a poor reputation of incompetence and defensive policymaking, holds the monopoly and immigration policy continues to be made in a silo.

The conditionality of employer tied visas combined with ineffective and under resourced labour enforcement system has led to an alarming increase in migrant exploitation especially in agriculture and social care.

The post-Brexit immigration system commodifies and stratifies migrant rights, by attaching rights to economic worth. This economic utilitarianism has further fuelled anti-migrant, dehumanising, politics as it frames and signals to the public and employers that migrants are commodities not people, and an economic threat to be controlled.

To achieve a functional immigration system requires accepting the interdependencies and spillover effects of immigration policy; it requires a whole system approach, holistic policymaking, better wages and terms and conditions for all workers, depoliticised policy and a rights-based approach that moves away from commodifying rights.


To address the deficiencies in the immigration system and fulfil the political demands put forward, a paradigm shift and a different kind of politics is needed. Both Conservatives and Labour want to address these dependencies, but it will require a transformative and radical rethink of the political economy away from an economic model which relies on flexible, poor quality, low pay jobs, and policymaking that takes the interconnections/spillover effects of policy seriously.

The system should be underpinned by ethical policymaking that moves away from treating immigrants as a public problem nor seeing them as purely economic utilities, breaking away from the quid pro quo on rights for capital. A rights-based approach, a rethink on the political economy and a shift in politics go hand in hand,  as demonstrated by the ‘gold standard’ systems elsewhere –  equitable collectivist cultures have more successful immigration policies because there is less inequality, and therefore the public worry less about immigration. Public attitudes are shifting on immigration, but saliency is key. The next government should aim to depoliticise immigration  through a rights-based simplified system that frames immigration as part and parcel of a wider shift towards a collectivist coordinated market economy.

The following are policy recommendations to instigate holistic ethical/equitable/rights-based immigration policy:

Governance changes

  • Establish Single Enforcement Body for Labour Rights – current standards are disjointed, under resourced, piecemeal, and ineffective.
  • Joined-Up Policymaking through Cross-Government structure –   migration streams to be within remit of relevant departments.
  • Corporatist approach with key sectoral bodies, migrant representatives, local government, trade unions.
  • Transparency on visa charges and rechannelling revenue to other departments.
    • Immigrant Health Surcharge directed to Health spending but there is no transparency on how much is spent on NHS.
    • Immigration skills surcharge – currently recouped by Home Office. The charge was designed to encourage domestic recruitment thus funds should be redirected to Department for Business and Trade (DBT), Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) for employment programmes & other initiatives.
  • Enhanced and reformed role for the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) and Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI):
    • MAC should be independent from Home Office and remit should be merged/expanded with other bodies such as Skills England, and Industrial Strategy Council to address the labour market and workforce planning synergies more broadly including spillover effects from policy  such as training and bursaries in health and care, and spending in social care staffing.
    • The ICIBI should be independent from the Home Office to fully ensure transparency, with expanded remit and autonomy.

Policy changes

  • Clarity and unified cross-government policy objectives.
  • No numerical targets and shift the “reduction” paradigm.
  • Unified permits – Modelled on the older Swedish system, unified permits regardless of skill level, no conditionality of employer tied permits.
  • Equal rights/end stratification: Ensuring clear pathways to settlement for all visas, permit switching between visas, equal access to all public services and permit family reunification for all workers.

About the author

Dr Erica Consterdine is Senior Lecturer Public Policy at Lancaster University. Prior to this Erica was a Research Fellow at the University of Sussex where she conducted research on the Common European Asylum System (CEASEVAL) and research on Temporary Migration (TEMPER). Erica was also a Research Fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) where she researched UK labour market policy, zero hour contracts and the gig economy; comparative pension policy; further education policy; higher education policy; labour market policies in Europe; and labour market integration of refugees.

Image credit: José Martín Ramírez Carrasco, Unsplash