Ralph Buckle is Director and Co-Founder of Commonwealth Exchange.
Arguing for more immigration of any sort is a difficult task in the current political climate. However that is what Commonwealth Exchange’s new report “How to solve a problem like a visa” does. Boris Johnson argues in the foreword to the report: “As we re-examine our relationship with the European Union, we have a vital opportunity to recast our immigration system in just this way. And the first place to start is with the Commonwealth.”
There are several reasons why we believe this is the right course of action, four of which I will share here.
The first is that Commonwealth immigration has plummeted in the last few years. The annual number of immigrants from ‘The Old Commonwealth’ (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa) more than halved between 2001-11.
South African immigration alone tumbled from 37,000 in 2004 to just 5,000 in 2012 and the rest of Commonwealth Africa saw a drop from a peak of 45,000 in 2004 to 19,000 in 2012. The number of people who moved to the UK from the Indian subcontinent fell by over 50,000 in 2011-12 alone.
What makes these figures particularly shocking is that between 2001-11 immigration from the EU increased by 200 per cent. This is in spite of the fact the EU comprises only about 7.3 per cent of the global population, compared to the Commonwealth which is home to a third.
No matter what level you thing overall net migration should be, it is clear that the Commonwealth is currently getting a raw deal.
Secondly, consider everything we share with Commonwealth citizens. This includes a number of unquantifiable elements such as our shared culture, sense of fair play, and understanding of the rules of cricket and queuing. Boris describes this in the report pointing out that “the UK has bonds of history, language, law, family and customs across the world and we would be foolish not to make more of these.” As he says, our similarities also include a business outlook based on the rule of law and, perhaps most crucially, a common language.
The fact that the Commonwealth contains over 1.2 billion citizens who speak English with a reasonable level of ease should not be underestimated. It’s obviously vital for almost all higher level jobs in the UK but, as the Daily Telegraph pointed out earlier this year, “migrants with little or no English are 50 per cent more likely to be unemployed than native speakers” and “those who do work are condemned to the lowest paid and most laborious jobs if they do not have a working command of English.”
The third reason is that the Commonwealth is booming. It is growing by nearly 4 per cent a year compared to the EU’s 0.1 per cent. As Boris also points out: “It seems that almost all parts of the Commonwealth are brimming with a new energy and optimism, at precisely the time that the European Union is struggling.”
Finally, the Commonwealth is young. Not the institution of course, but its citizens. Two thirds are aged under 30. One of the frequent concerns about immigration is the strain it will put on public services. However the UK’s and the EU’s ageing population is going to do exactly the same thing unless we do something to counteract it. Allowing more young, skilled and ambitious Commonwealth citizens to live, work, and thrive in the UK is one of the most promising ways to do so.
With all this in mind we have made six practical policy proposals to fix the current parlous state of Commonwealth visas and immigration:
- Restore the Commonwealth to the Youth Visa.
- Provide a Commonwealth Concession to the Tourist and Business Tourist Visas.
- Move towards bilateral mobility zones with Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.
- Add a Commonwealth component to the Exceptional Talent Visa.
- Pilot a UK Commonwealth business visa and create a Commonwealth Realm airport queue.
- Retain the Tier 1 Post-Study Work Visa.
They are intended to be implementable regardless of our relationship with the EU and can be put in to practice without approval for Brussels. They are also intended to be gradual in their impact to avoid any difficult to manage increases.
Finally, the recommendations are intended to be reciprocal. By starting several of the proposals on a limited basis with countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the impact on net migration may actually be negligible and in some years negative. This would allow the proposals to be implemented without necessarily impacting on the Prime Minister’s intention to bring down overall net migration.
However, even if the net effect on total immigration is positive we believe that the advantages of immigration from the Commonwealth will overwhelmingly outweigh the benefits and by ignoring it we risk causing serious damage to the UK’s economy, society, and public finances. The Commonwealth are our kith and kin and to ignore them is not only unfair, it’s also a risk we cannot take.