25 September 2018

Controlling low-skilled migration: a more pragmatic approach


Two and a half years after the EU referendum, the policy debate about what happens next may finally be underway.

The Migration Advisory Committee report on the economic impacts of European migration was the catalyst and looks to have influenced much of the Government’s thinking. Following cabinet discussions this week, reports suggest the Prime Minister will announce new immigration proposals at the Conservative conference in Birmingham which expand visa routes for high-skilled workers but offer none for lower-skilled workers and no preferential treatment for workers from the European Union.

The MAC’s evidence was initially welcomed by some migration advocates. It suggests that the impact of migration is good news for the NHS, for example, because the gains from migrant NHS workers outweigh the impacts of population change on services. Overall, the MAC suggested that the net economic impacts of EU immigration have been relatively small, that it has “neither the large negative effects claimed by some nor the clear benefits claimed by others”.

Yet the MAC’s proposals, if adopted, would be a much more dramatic curbing of future migration than any British government has attempted since the 1960s, combining an openness to skilled migration with proposals that would end specific low-skilled migration routes for work.

The MAC was not asked to consult the public as part of the evidence-gathering for its EEA migration report. Had it done so, it would have found public support for greater controls on low-skilled migration from the EU – and indeed for a more open approach to high-skilled migration too. The National Conversation on Immigration, the biggest-ever public consultation on immigration policy, published its findings just ahead of the MAC report. Participants in 60 citizens’ panels across every nation and region of the UK, as well as those who completed an online survey or were polled by ICM, were asked about different flows of migration and whether they would prefer them to be increased, reduced or to remain the same. Three quarters of those polled by ICM would keep high-skilled EU migration at the same level or higher and just 14 per cent would reduce it; while 45 per cent would reduce low-skilled EU migration, 31 per cent would keep it at the current level and 12 per cent would like it to increase.

Yet the MAC proposal that the Government seems set to adopt is not just to control or reduce low and semi-skilled migration but to seek to end it, being sceptical of the case for any low-skilled migration for work routes outside of agriculture. That is likely to be challenged within government, as well as by the economic sectors that are affected, particularly on key political priorities from house-building to social care where departmental ministers will fear that their broader policy aims would be at risk if the MAC plan was adopted unmodified.

The MAC’s proposal also goes beyond where the public is on this question. There is certainly support for greater controls, but it sits alongside consent for low and medium-skilled migration where people can understand the need for it. ICM polling for British Future in 2017 found that only 25 per cent would prefer fewer migrant care workers, for example; only 37 per cent would reduce flows of fruit-pickers or construction workers.

There is another voice that is sure to make itself heard in the EU migration debate, of course, and that is the EU. Immigration was one of the key issues in the EU referendum and, barring ‘no deal’, is likely to be an important part of the negotiations with Brussels on the terms of our departure and the trade relationship that follows. Yet the headlines today seem to rule out any preferential treatment for EU workers in our future immigration system – which will be hard to square with Britain’s demands for access to EU markets on preferential terms. This remains the highest-profile issue on which negotiators on both sides have had least to say. If continued freedom of movement is unlikely to be viable in the UK, nobody has explored whether other UK-EU preferential migration options may yet prove negotiable.

The Migration Advisory Committee had no advice at all for the Government about what it should or should not try to achieve in the Brexit negotiations — despite many headlines suggesting that it did. If migration does not feature at all in the UK-EU negotiations, there will be no special rules for EU migrants in the UK following departure. If the government decides it needs to talk about migration to achieve its objectives of a close economic partnership, it will enter into territory that the MAC considered too uncertain and too political to consider.

On this, Theresa May would do well to learn from past failures to deliver on immigration promises, which have damaged public trust. Some access to the UK jobs market could be part of any trade deal the UK strikes, whether that is with the EU or with other countries after we leave. Ruling it out now, only to backtrack later, would only confirm what many people feel already – that politicians and the Government can’t be trusted on this issue.

Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future.