Amber Rudd’s Speech: Monitoring After Brexit?

The speech by Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, was arguably the most policy-heavy presentation at the Conservative Party Conference. It also made a strong claim to be the most controversial, so it is hardly surprising that it provoked a vigorous response from some quarters.

The main focus of ire was Rudd’s proposal – offered in post-speech briefing notes, rather than in her address itself – that companies “be clear about the proportion of their workforce which is international”.

As the storm exploded, Rudd began to backtrack. But, while she argued that her proposal to “name and shame” businesses was just an idea, she continued to defend the meat of her address. This included a whole raft of proposals:

  • a new aim to reduce international student numbers based on the possibility of different rules for students in different courses or universities based on their judged quality
  • tightening the Resident Labour Market Test
  • requiring businesses to invest more in training British workers
  • making it a felony for landlords to rent property to “illegal immigrants” (which they already must check they are not doing)
  • requiring banks to perform regular checks that they are not providing services to such individuals.

Such policies would represent significant increases in the “outsourcing” of monitoring duties by the Home Office to other sectors and organisations – businesses, universities, landlords, and banks. This has been an unmistakable trend in British migration policy since the elevation of “sponsorship” to new levels of importance in the immigration system upon the introduction of the Points Based System in 2008.

With the post-2010 drive to lower net migration numbers, the Home Office has forced the evolution of these visa “sponsorship” relationships into ones where organisations are bound to monitor migrants to see that they are doing what they allegedly supposed to do – that student visa holders are actually attending class, that labour migrants are actually on the job, etc. This has been accompanied by another category of increasing onerousness, where the Home Office has gradually eroded the ability of many non-EU immigrants (especially students) to switch between visa categories and put up greater administrative barriers (raising requirements and visa fees) to come to or stay in the UK.

Rudd’s proposals are then, in many senses, fundamentally familiar – a rerun of what is by now a well-worn playbook. Familiar, too, is her rhetorical devotion to the benefits of allowing in the “best and brightest.” Indeed, in her time as Home Secretary, one of Theresa May’s crucial political moves was to ring-fence intra-company transfers, other sponsored “high-skill” migration, and the ability of reputable universities to sponsor international students.

These accommodations have allowed these powerful constituencies to live with developments they find uncomfortable, with the bulk of policy changes affecting family migrants, the lower-skilled, and higher educational institutions lower on the perceived pecking order. Again, Rudd’s plans – subject, as she emphasises, to “consultation” – seem to be an extension of these patterns.

So, if this “outsourcing” is just a continuation of existing patterns, why have Rudd’s announcements been received in some quarters as the foretelling of a dark new era?

Brexit has brought forward the possibility of EU migrants falling under such policy changes, which up to now have affected only non-EU migrants. Including Europeans under such a regime would make migration to the UK fundamentally more rigid and would impose much more extensive monitoring duties on institutions that have, up to now, only had to adopt such roles in relation to non-EU migrants.

Of course, the government has not exactly decided what rules it will impose on EU citizens in Britain. One thing is for certain, however: the claim that Brexit would lead to a relaxation of the government’s unrealistic target of reducing migration to the “tens of thousands” has been dashed. The idea of “naming and shaming” – while a throwaway as far as the speech was concerned – echoes what many see as the disturbing new acceptability of anti-immigrant feeling since the referendum. With further restriction being imposed on an ever-growing number of people – and with the government’s renewed emphasis on multi-sectoral monitoring – we should be in no doubt that this is a process that has just begun.