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In the run up to last year’s general election, one of Boris Johnson’s most significant promises was to reduce immigration if the Conservatives won a majority. 

He spoke about the Government’s proposed new Australia-style points-based system, saying that “numbers will come down because we’ll be able to control the system”, adding that he felt it was not “right… to have an uncontrolled and unlimited approach”. 

With that being said, some may have been confused last week when the Home Office reduced its £35,8000 minimum salary threshold for migrants wanting to settle in the UK by almost 30 per cent – in a move that should surely boost numbers. 

The threshold was first introduced by Theresa May in 2011 when she was Home Secretary, and had been tasked with reducing net migration to below 100,000 (something that was never achieved, incidentally. Net migration to the UK has not been under that figure since 1997).

Under this Government, however, the net migration target has been abandoned, and now migrants on salaries of £20,480, but with enough points under a new Australian-style immigration system to take on jobs with occupational shortages, will be able to settle in Britain after six years to become citizens. 

The new rules come into effect on December 1, and follow the Home Office’s decision in January this year to scrap the £30,000 minimum salary threshold for people arriving after Brexit. 

Given May’s concern with numbers, the latest policy marks a significant shift for the Conservative Party on immigration, although it has created little noise in the media. Indeed, the change to the salary threshold was only spotted after Oxford University’s Migration Observatory went through a 507-word rule book, leading to accusations that changes to the threshold had “quietly slipped out”. 

So why is it that the Government has chosen to implement this policy? And what does it tell us about the future of immigration in the UK?

There are a number of perspectives you could have on the change of the salary threshold. The first is that it isn’t actually all that unexpected, given that thresholds for post-Brexit work visas were already lowered. 

As Sunder Katwala – Director of British Future – puts it on Twitter, the drop in threshold is “an obvious piece of tidying up”. It means that there won’t be such a big gap between someone’s salary and the increase they need to stay in the UK. It encourages citizenship, above anything else.

The next thing to say is that it gives the Government much more flexibility over skills shortages in the UK. The previous salary thresholds (£30,000 for getting a job and £35,000 to settle) were a blunt instrument to achieve net migration targets. There are lots of skilled workers the Government wants to attract to the UK, whose roles do not meet this salary threshold. The Australian-style system is much more nuanced, allowing the Government to make targetted decisions depending on the needs of the economy. 

The obvious counter argument to this, of course, is that the Government shouldn’t be recruiting from elsewhere; it should be getting UK citizens into jobs where there are shortages, particularly given how quickly unemployment is rising. This has been Donald Trump’s approach in America, who has essentially ground migration and travel to a halt in order to promote domestic employment.  It is also the thrust of Andrew Green’s articles on this site.

Even so, there has to be a degree of realism about the UK’s employment landscape. Take agriculture. Despite big recruitment campaigns to encourage domestic workers, the National Farmers Union revealed that only 11 per cent of seasonal workers in the 2020 were UK residents, and the country needs thousands more to come by next summer. In short, by lowering thresholds, the Government has much more flexibility to fill occupational shortages.

Migration Observatory has called the reduction in the threshold “the final nail in the coffin of the net migration target”, but the other point to bear in mind is that migration isn’t at the levels it once was because of the pandemic. As Katwala suggests on Twitter, the Government has accidentally hit May’s under 100,000 target. He says that from looking at the Office for National Statistics figures, “[N]et migration has almost certainly been negative this year.” 

Recent events, along with the fall in the pound (an unappealing prospect to workers wanting to be here for a few years, save up money and bring it back to their home country) have changed this area, and the Government will strategise accordingly.

And what does all this tell us about Johnson? It shows, at the very least, he has a completely different view on immigration to May, which was clear when he first abandoned net migration targets. He is averse to using numbers in this respect – perhaps viewing them as an arbitrary measure of how successful an immigration system is.

Many will see his latest policy as more evidence that he has been, and will always be, liberal on immigration. Throughout his career this has been apparent. 

During his time as the Mayor of London, for instance, he called for an “earned amnesty” for an estimated 400,000 people living illegally in London. He was particularly keen that they should be able to gain citizenship after years in the city.

More recently, the Government pledged to admit three million Hong Kong residents into the UK following China’s decision to impose new draconian security legislation.

And in September, the Prime Minister reversed a decision made by May (in 2012 – when she was Home Secretary) that forced oversea students to leave four months after they finished their degrees. They will now be able to stay in the UK for two years after graduation.

In losing the thresholds, Johnson is not only better able to make way for his policies on international students and those fleeing Hong Kong, but projecting his personal philosophy; his open attitude to immigration, and his commitment to fairness.

On the latter point, the new policies could be said to be an extension of the “levelling up” agenda, as the Government is creating parity on the requirements for EU and non-EU migrants coming to the UK (the former of which had more leniency under free movement).

Has Johnson fulfilled his pledge to “take back control”? It is a statement he has said repeatedly over the years. But talk to anyone, and it becomes obvious that there is no clear cut view on what he would do with that control if it was gained, as it now has been.

No doubt many voters saw immigration control as a numbers game, others say it is about “control over who comes in” – something afforded under the Australian points system. The Government seems to believe the new system will achieve both. Whatever the case, by all indications it’s a far more sophisticated way of managing UK immigration than salary thresholds.

177 comments for: Johnson’s quiet shift to a more permissive migration policy

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