In a short few months since the general election we’ve seen a real step change in the way the Conservative leadership are approaching immigration.
Migration and the Tories have never been natural bed fellows. The party has come a long way since Michael Howard’s ill fated ‘are you thinking what I’m thinking’ campaign in 2005, but the tension is still there.
To be fair, a large proportion of the public agree with them – opinion polls tell us that most people want to see less migration. When you dig a little deeper that tends to mean fewer illegal immigrants and low-skilled workers.
In the coalition, the Tories looked to reduce net migration from 196,000 a year to under 100,000. This commitment was not shared by the Lib Dems (and indeed there were times that the PM and Home Secretary denied it) but the Home Office policy machine, fronted by Teresa May, relentlessly left no stone unturned trying to reduce the number of migrants.
Visa categories for skilled and highly skilled workers were variously removed and tightened – it became much harder to sponsor a worker, albeit still easier than in lots of other countries. The rules for foreign students were ratcheted up, striking fear in the hearts of Vice Chancellors everywhere and taking countless ‘bogus’ colleges out of business. Financial requirements were introduced for the spouses of British citizens – not always prohibitive but complex in the extreme.
The result? By the last election net migration had risen to 318,000 more people coming in than leaving the UK each year. You can hammer non-EU migration as much as you want, but EU nationals can still keep coming. The government is alive to this and no doubt have grand plans for reducing perceived incentives for EU nationals coming to the UK in their EU renegotiation brief.
So now to the subtle step change.
Since the election the Prime Minister has installed himself as head of his government’s migration task force, delivering a wide ranging ambitious speech on cutting and controlling migration and announced a wholesale review of work visa policy.
What does this mean? In simple terms, the Government means business otherwise David Cameron would not take the early leading role from the Home Secretary
This matters for the economy. In the last three weeks we have seen two policy consultations asking how to strip work visa policy to the bare bones.
Businesses don’t recruit foreign skilled workers for the fun of it. If the skills they need to grow, or even to survive, are not available locally then they have to look overseas. Multinationals investing in the UK need to know that their existing staff can be transferred here if needed, bringing company knowledge and expertise.
Moreover this all needs to make economic sense – the consultations propose charging health and skills levies with visa applications and increasing the minimum salaries for skilled workers substantially, often by £20,000 or more. It could all get far more expensive for businesses.
The UK is an obvious location to base work in Europe. That could change if the skilled workers needed are not available or are too expensive – there are plenty of other places to send work if not. It won’t just be at a cost to the jobs that those migrant workers fill – their potential British team mates could also miss out.
This is not to say that there wouldn’t be positive employment outcomes. Some jobs not filled by migrant workers will certainly go to residents. The question is whether the number of jobs that could be lost or go unfilled outweighs the number that would be taken by residents.
We’ve been here before. Between 2010 and 2013 many equally stringent measures were proposed and some where implemented. Back then the outcome was a far less business friendly policy but there were concessions for business. At least one of those concessions came from a PM, again at Prime Minister’s questions.
This time around the PM is taking a personal interest and speaking evangelically about his plans to control migration. Against that backdrop you have to question whether businesses will find as much sympathy to their needs, irrespective of what new immigration laws might mean for the companies based here or for their contributions to the economy.
It is imperative that businesses, lawyers and other interested parties feed in their concerns as part of the consultation process to try to influence the outcome . Complaining and reacting after the event is not going to help anyone!
By Ian Robinson - Fragomen
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