Great Britain

Reducing migration has little to do with Brexit – we've had a points-based system since 2008

If Brexit is supposed to mean anything, it’s that the UK will "take back control", including a tighter grip on migration.

The one and only policy Boris Johnson has repeatedly proposed since the EU referendum is that Brexit means the UK can launch its own Australian-style points-based immigration system. Johnson has promised that this will mean a cut in immigration. But if Brexit is stopped, then there can be no points-based system and migration will rise. This is a core campaign manifesto pledge that his appeal to voters rests on.

The problem with Johnson's only "new" idea on immigration isn't that it's a house of cards, but a stinking pack of lies. It's time he was called out.

Download the new Indpendent Premium app

Sharing the full story, not just the headlines

Let's start with the biggest fib of all. Johnson claims only Brexit can enable a points-based immigration system. The Tory manifesto clearly states that a post-Brexit "future relationship" with the EU "will allow" the UK to "introduce" a points-based system.

Indeed, the Conservatives appear committed to starting a points-based system. Just before the election, Home Secretary Priti Patel asked the Migration Advisory Committee to consult on how such a system can be "introduced".

But the UK already has a points-based immigration system. It's even modelled on Australia's. How would Brexit be required to have a system that’s already in place?

Britain's points-based system was launched over a decade ago in 2008 – by a Labour government. 

But perhaps neither Johnson nor Patel understand how immigration policy works or what to do about it. If they did, they would know the Home Office has made several updates to its guidelines on how the points-based system we have in place works, including only a fortnight ago, and changing how it operates since Labour was last in power. It almost makes me feel bad for the chair of the Migration Advisory Committee who will eventually have to tell the government they have literally asked them to reinvent the wheel.

This leads to the second big fib. Johnson promises that any points-based system would cut immigration. This is also completely untrue. 

Australia launched its system specifically to attract an increase in migration: those who met the points threshold could live and work in the country. 

The UK subjects only non-EU citizens to its points-based system. The government could cut their numbers virtually to zero if they wanted: the fact is that non-EU migration reached the highest levels on record under Conservative governments. 

In the latest net migration figures, the Office for National Statistics confirms that not only is there a points-based system in operation but also that non-EU citizens coming to Britain through this system increased by 11 per cent over last year – "the highest level since.. . the new system was introduced" in 2008.

The prime minister is lying to the public on every count. Brexit is unnecessary to launch a points-based system. His government will most definitely not start such a system since it's been in place (thanks to Labour, not the Tories) and its use will not help numbers fall.

The big problem here is not migration numbers (and I am a migrant). Migrants bring net benefits, such as paying taxes, contributing to the economy, fulfilling vital posts in education and the NHS.

Yet Tory prime ministers have a history of promising immigration targets that are never met – and never intended to be met. The manifesto pledge to cut migration to tens of thousands, for example, was an election promise that Tories loved to break. 

Net migration isn't any one thing, but a collection of very different demographics – including British citizens and foreign students. Driving Brits out to meet an arbitrary goal is simply perverse. Labour is right to want it scrapped as it's been an unworkable focus for policy-making from the start. No wonder the government has quietly abandoned it.

In this election campaign, Johnson’s one and only "new" policy idea to "get Brexit done" isn't new and doesn’t work as he intends. It shows how cynical the prime minister’s propaganda machine must be, knowing they are deceiving people into voting for the opposite of what they've been promised.

But what is far, far worse is the long-term damage Johnson's personal ambition to hold power will do to public trust in our politicians and political system. For democracy's sake, he must pay an electoral price.

Thom Brooks is professor of law and government at Durham University