Lord Green is Chairman of MigrationWatch UK and a cross-bench peer.
Labour are said to be switching their focus back to their traditional seats to shore them up against assaults by the Brexiteers. If so, they have a problem. Their immigration policy rides roughshod over the views of many of their working class voters. Furthermore, their long-term strategy is to change our society in ways deeply unwelcome to these same voters as I outlined in my recent article on this site.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives need a serious policy if they are to win the battle for these crucial seats where immigration is a very important issue. The time for comic campaigning is well and truly over.
The comedy opened with a Home Office minister unwilling to tell the Today programme whether or not it was Conservative policy to reduce immigration. The same morning the Home Secretary confirmed that reduction was, indeed, the policy – only to row back that afternoon to a neutral position. This was, frankly, ridiculous given that 30 million UK adults wish to see a reduction in immigration, 18 million of them “by a lot”. This includes 84 per cent of Conservative voters.
The publication of the manifesto sought to draw a line under that confusion. The Conservatives can now say that they have a policy, but it is weak and could easily fail in execution. Most of the measures outlined were sensible enough but minor in their effect. The key passage was the following:
‘There will be fewer low-skilled migrants, and overall numbers will come down. And we will ensure that the British people are always in control.’
This wording is nothing if not ingenious. “There will be fewer low-skilled migrants”. The only low-skilled migrants admitted to the UK have been from the EU. So the first question is: will the Government proceed with its proposal to allow low-skilled EU migrants to come to the UK after Brexit for 11 months before returning home for what they describe as a “cooling off period” before they are allowed to return to work here? Obviously, it will be impossible to control the numbers. This scheme would simply be an underhand device to keep such workers out of the official long term immigration statistics. In practice, it would completely undermine their key statement (notice: not a “pledge”) that there will be fewer low-skilled migrants.
In any case, the latest immigration statistics show that net migration from the EU is down to about 50,000 a year out of an overall net figure of 212,000. Clearly, there is not much scope for further reduction by eliminating low-skilled EU workers even if they abandon their dodgy 11-month visas.
Much will depend, therefore, on their so-called “Australian-style” points-based system which is outlined in the manifesto. However, the problem with such systems is that they are both complex and heavily dependent on the salary and qualifications required. Currently, the earnings requirement is £30,000 a year except for occupations deemed to be in shortage, such as medical staff. The skill requirement has long been set at degree level. However, both these criteria are under siege by a range of industries which have profited from the low salaries paid to EU migrants, especially from poorer member states, and the training costs that they have saved.
The Government is ducking the key issues for the time being by asking the Migration Advisory Committee to conduct research on some technical points. Meanwhile, the Home Office is separately consulting over 130 different organisations for their views on future immigration. The overwhelming majority represent employers (who want more workers from abroad), the higher education sector (who want more overseas students) as well as migrant welfare bodies.
Extraordinarily, the voice of the public will hardly be heard. Indeed, Migration Watch is one of the very few organisations to have spoken up for the many who want a reduction in immigration together with a serious focus on training the domestic workforce and investing in the technology that will help raise our productivity which has been virtually flat for ten years – despite massive levels of immigration, which according to the immigration industry is supposed to raise productivity.
In addition to pressures from employers for more low-skilled workers, there could be a very large number of applications from the third world, where even highly-skilled people may not be highly paid. They will, of course, be encouraged to apply by family members already in the UK. It follows that it will be vital to retain the current level of skills and salary if the numbers are to be kept to a reasonable level. We estimate that, if industry’s demands are met and the skill level is reduced from degree to A-level, and the salary requirement from £30,000 to £21,000 a year, about nine million UK jobs will be opened to new or increased international competition.
This points to the most serious risk of all – the clear possibility that the new regime will lead to a massive increase of immigration that will be extremely difficult to bring back under control. We saw it under Blair when net migration quadrupled in a few years. We saw it again when, alone except for Sweden, we opened our labour market to the EU without a transition period. If this should happen yet again public confidence in our governing class, already extremely low, would take yet another severe battering.