19 May 2022

How Global Britain can attract the talented migrants we so badly need

By Blair Gibbs

As we face up to the new economic reality of falling real incomes and soaring inflation, one thing remains the same: Britain’s high levels of immigration. This is because the underlying drivers – record low rates of unemployment and a large number of vacancies in key sectors – haven’t changed. This was true before Brexit and it remains the case now. 

Hard choices will be needed to support family incomes without public spending getting out of control. But almost no one is now arguing that our economic situation would be improved if Britain cut immigration, even with levels of non-EU migration now far exceeding the levels seen before the Brexit vote.

In fact, as The Financial Times reported, popular opposition to immigration in the UK keeps falling as net immigration levels keep rising.  As Dominic Cummings noted, the core Brexit argument seems to have been settled – it was never about opposition to skilled migration, or some nativist reaction by Leave voters. It was about lack of control, and the sustained influx of unlimited unskilled labour from Europe.

Even though many opposition politicians won’t admit it, today’s Westminster consensus seems to be that a country having sovereign control over its migration system is not a bad position to start from. Add to this the view that these skilled migrants are an important part of future economic growth as well as net contributors to the public purse, and there now seems to be a widespread belief that increased levels of regulated migration are welcome.  

Understandably, most of the media attention and political heat focuses on unregulated and illegal migration. But there is still insufficient debate about how the UK should set policy and streamline processes to get the type of legal migration it wants.  

The ‘Global Britain’ agenda should be just as much about removing obstacles from skilled migrants as it is about lowering barriers to trade. Changes to post-study work eligibility and the new Graduate Route and Global Talent Visa are already doing this, with the changes proving especially popular in India. However, we could and should go further.  

One path through the UK’s cost of living crisis and productivity challenge is to lean into the sectors that are already doing well and help them to grow even more, so the UK’s post-secondary education sector is a clear candidate for further expansion.

But international students are not enough. Our high-cost, service-led economy needs a strong flow of skilled workers to support those innovative sectors, like healthcare and advanced manufacturing, that cannot be found in developing markets. For this to work, all government departments need a clear understanding of how they can contribute to this economic agenda. 

Even departments like the Home Office should be required to consider economic factors when developing policy, so constraints on growth and innovation can be lifted. For the Home Secretary, this would mean delivering a modern border infrastructure well before 2025, and along with it, a visa system that is efficient, accessible and resilient.  

We also need a migration policy that supports wider economic goals, not just the imperative to protect the UK and conduct security checks on applicants. The points-based immigration system is a good start – it already screens out anyone with criminal records or without adequate proficiency in the English language. But we can do better: personal biometrics should become mandatory for all visas at the same time as new online visa application processes are adopted to reach more global talent. 

The Government should be more explicit about exactly who it wants to attract and from where. Britain is a popular destination, and ultimately we can afford to be selective. After all, the migration debate is not just about how people access the UK, but who chooses to come. Demand is high right now, but sustaining the upward trend in skilled immigration as the global economy enters a downturn is the challenge.

There are three further reforms that could help.

Firstly, shifting to secure digital tests for language proficiency so talented applicants do not have to travel long distances to sit paper exams in old-fashioned testing centres. Modern technology now makes these tests secure and auditable, to guard against potential cheating.

Post-pandemic, it has become very clear that the Secure English Language Testing (SELT) system is an analogue model that is not resilient. It also cannot meet the demands of a digital age where young people are learning online and taking more tests remotely. The friction and cost involved for applicants is a major disincentive to migration, as a new report from Duolingo and Public First released this week reveals

Secondly, the UK should move away from an agnostic attitude that treats all countries equally. Instead, gear the new points-based system to benefit democratic countries that have signed free trade agreements with the UK, so applicants from those countries score higher by default. This would immediately benefit all types of migrant from Australia, for example.

Thirdly, revise and expand the bilateral youth mobility deals that Britain already has, so they become a more generous ‘off the shelf’ option to sweeten new trade deals we want to sign, giving more younger adults a working holiday option to come to the UK without a job or a college place for a limited time.

If the Youth Mobility Scheme was reformed to increase the eligible age limit from 30 years old to 35, and extended from two years to four years, the visa could supercharge the UK’s fast growing tech sector, and give Britain a competitive advantage over European countries with more restrictive immigration routes. Without the need for sponsorship – but still requiring applicants to have English language proficiency and sufficient economic resources – this type of visa route is ultra-flexible and cheap. It would be especially appealing to young Canadians and Europeans, and to start ups looking to quickly secure skilled labour to help grow their business in the UK.

In terms of delivering for voters, post-Brexit migration policy is in the same position as ‘levelling up’ – the public are open to the concept and there have been numerous policy statements and ministerial speeches. But if any of this is going to become a legacy of the Johnson government, there is not much more time left to push through practical changes to actually bring it about, with modern visa arrangements and new mobility partnerships that link trade and migration together. Otherwise, we risk ‘Global Britain’ going the same way as Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ – a sound idea that never had the policy underpinning to become anything more than rhetoric.

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Blair Gibbs is a policy consultant who previously served as home affairs advisor in the Number 10 Policy Unit from 2019-20.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.