Lord Green is President of MigrationWatch UK and a cross-bench peer.

The government has, this week, easily won the first vote on their revised Immigration Bill. However, this first debate just scratched the surface of huge decisions affecting the future of our society which have been pending for several years – drowned out first by Brexit, and then by the coronavirus emergency. They must now be faced – so we need a serious debate. That must cover those now illegally crossing the English Channel but their numbers are much smaller than those that are likely to stem from the new immigration system.

The continuous moans from industry give the impression that a harsh restriction is in prospect. Far from it. The true picture is one of a government surrender to employers at the expense of employees. The new arrangements proposed for work permits clearly illustrate this.

The plan is to reduce the qualifications required to A-Level rather than Degree Level. The salary requirement will also be reduced. Indeed, for so-called “new entrants” (those under 26) it will be £20,480, not much above the UK Living Wage of £19,300 per year. It is hard to imagine a more obvious loophole for employers who wish to import cheap labour. Furthermore, there will no longer be a requirement first to advertise a job in the UK (even Blair’s New Labour retained this). Nor, crucially, will there be any cap on the number of work permits available.

This plan is based on a policy paper issued in February but the Coronavirus crisis has since transformed the prospects for our economy. A very sharp recession is now certain and it could take several years for the economy to recover. Claims for unemployment benefit are already just over two million. This surely is the worst possible context in which to make a sharp reduction in the qualifications required for a work permit while also opening our labour market to the whole world.

The public’s view is already clear but we in Migration Watch seem to be almost their only voice. Our analysis of five different opinion polls since the spring of 2018 (none of them our own) shows that 58 per cent of the public – that is 30 million UK adults – wish to see immigration reduced. Furthermore, a 2019 Ipsos poll found that, by a margin of 25 points, the public support the view that, when jobs are scarce, employers should prioritise those in the UK ahead of overseas recruits. Now that the scale of immigration is in our own hands, the public will want to see results – and rightly so.

However, the Bill now before the House does not even outline the policies that they set out in February. The new immigration system, including the Points Based System for work permits, will be set out later in secondary legislation. Meanwhile, this Bill is something of a Trojan horse – classic in shape, carefully crafted, and harmless in appearance. Yet it is full of hidden, sometimes dire, consequences which might well haunt the Conservatives at the next election and beyond.

We have looked into some of these consequences. We estimate that an additional six million jobs will be rendered open to new or increased international competition. As for how many foreign workers might wish to come to the UK, we have focussed on the fifteen countries which have been the main sources of foreign workers in recent years. We have found that the pool of potential, secondary-educated migrants to the UK is of the order of nine million. Of course they will not all come, but these calculations are a measure of the pool of possible recruits under the proposed uncapped arrangements, and an indication of the immigration pressures that could very well build up at short notice. Indeed, Thursday’s immigration figures for 2019 contained a taste of what might be on the horizon once the coronavirus crisis has subsided. Net migration from outside the EU rose to 282,000 – already an increase of 37 per cent on the previous year.

It is worth recalling that, following the 2008 financial crisis when unemployment reached 2.5 million, it took six years for the number of UK born workers to regain its pre-crash level, while the number of workers born abroad increased by more than a million. We should be prepared, therefore, for some employers to insist on the need for continued cheaper labour from abroad so as to recover from the effects of the lockdown.

If, indeed, employers again turn to cheaper foreign labour, the Conservatives will suffer very heavily, especially but by no means only, in the new “red wall” constituencies.

Fortunately, there is still time for the government to reconsider, in the light of the totally new situation that has developed since February. Four precautions need to be taken before the new system is rolled out in the summer:

  • The new entrant route (which, importantly, can lead to settlement) should be postponed.
  • The qualification requirement should be kept at degree level or equivalent.
  • All job opportunities should first be advertised in the UK.
  • The government should retain a power to impose a cap, if necessary at very short notice.

The time may come for an easing of the work permit system, but that will not be while we face a recession on a scale which, as the Chancellor rather cryptically put it recently, “we haven’t seen before”.