Lord Green is President of MigrationWatch UK and a cross-bench peer.
The Government’s new immigration policy, extensively briefed to the Sunday Times over the weekend, contains serious risks for the Conservative Party. These could, indeed must, be mitigated by provision for an annual cap on work permits if it proves necessary, and by postponement of a lower pay threshold for younger workers.
Recent recommendations from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) set traps for the unwary which, if not avoided, will do nothing for the prospects of the Conservatives. If their recommendations were to be accepted, as appears to be the case, there would be every chance that net migration would shoot up, as it has done in the past whenever doors have been opened wider.
The Government has been careful to say only that it expects net migration to “fall” but, absent a cap on overall numbers, this is trusting to luck rather than taking control.
The MAC report was music to the ears of the immigration industry and will be welcome to some employers but the wider public, indeed the 30 million who wish to see immigration reduced, will be aghast.
For the main stream of immigrant workers, those with a job offer, the MAC recommendations were astonishing. On their own admission they would mean that a total of 16 million jobs in the UK would be open to worldwide competition with no limit on the numbers and without employers even having to advertise vacancies on the home market. They recommended lowering the general salary requirement from £30,000 to about £26,000 and that the qualification requirements should be reduced from degree level to the equivalent of A-Level. It seems that the Government have accepted both recommendations.
However, the press briefing was, apparently, silent on another key issue – namely the much lower salary requirement of only about £18,000 a year for those under 26 when they arrive. This lasts for five years and is only just above the minimum wage, so it provides an easy dodge for employers looking for cheap workers.
Of course, there will be a severe temptation for employers to go for these younger and cheaper workers – especially if they believe that their competitors are doing the same and would otherwise gain a competitive advantage. This was acceptable when there was a cap on the total number of work permits but with no cap we risk a wave of young workers from all over the world, some from countries where documents relating to qualifications and even age can easily be purchased. This route really must be put on hold at least until the main routes have settled down.
There will be plenty of applicants from all over the world, since a significant number of jobs would lead to the right to settle in Britain. If their jobs were on a so-called Shortage Occupation List (SOL) they would be able to apply for settlement after five years whatever their salary. Some nine per cent of total employment – or 2.5 million UK workers – are now included on this list.
The MAC have also recommended the inclusion of a whole range of lower-paid roles including construction workers, teaching assistants and even child minders. The Government seems to have postponed such schemes until later in 2021. It is, however, very hard to see how such a huge and complex system could be properly policed. Indeed, it could well lead to yet more illegal immigration which is already growing by some 70,000 a year.
The MAC also listed as an option the Temporary Workers Scheme outlined in the White Paper published in December 2018. This suggested that low-skilled workers should be admitted for 11 months at a time, to be followed by a return home for a “cooling off period”. This would clearly be a blatant attempt to manipulate the immigration figures which only include those coming to the UK for 12 months or more. It would also be another enforcement nightmare. The Government briefing was ambiguous on this aspect.
All this could well amount to a massive loosening of the UK immigration system – not only to migrants from all over the world, but also in terms of the salary and qualification requirements. It is bound to lead to larger inflows and, indeed, there is every chance that the numbers could run out of control.
Superficially, public concern about immigration has lessened since the referendum. This is partly because the refugee crisis in Europe has subsided for the time being and partly because people tend to assume that, now we have powers to control it, it will indeed be controlled.
Nevertheless, the underlying view is clear. An analysis of seven polls by four different companies shows that 30 million UK adults wish to see immigration reduced, 18 million of them “by a lot”. This is also a view that was held by an average of 64 per cent in a survey of marginal seats conducted before the last election.
Despite the Prime Minister’s promise that immigration would fall there is nothing in these proposals, as reported, to make this happen. Failure for the fourth time to keep their promises on immigration would be deeply damaging to the Party’s prospects, especially in the ‘Red Wall’ constituencies. Given the political risks involved, some precautions would be prudent. The Government should take powers to impose a cap if necessary and also postpone the lower salary for younger workers.