19 May 2020

The misjudged Immigration Bill is the last thing our economy needs

By Morgan Schondelmeier

Ordinarily one of the most contentious topics in British political discourse, immigration has largely taken a back seat in recent week as political and economic life has been almost totally absorbed by the pandemic. The respite was only brief, however, as last night MPs voted through the first stage of the Government’s new Immigration Bill, tabled just a few weeks ago.

Unfortunately, the bill is a missed opportunity, which seriously misjudges the true benefits of controlling our own immigration system. The UK could have introduced an ambitious, responsive, and flexible immigration policy which met the social and economic needs of our country.

No longer beholden to European law, the UK could have extended mutual recognition of qualifications to our closest allies or made it easier for the likes of Americans, South Africans or Singaporeans, to live and work here and for Brits to have the same opportunities abroad. We could have lessened the burden businesses have to bear in order to hire foreigners, and removed the salary threshold to allow anyone with a job offer from anywhere in the world to fulfil their potential, no matter the salary or industry.

There are some encouraging reforms; the fast track of visas for NHS workers, the two-year graduate worker scheme which allows students of UK universities to remain two years after graduation, and the expansion of the seasonal agricultural temporary worker scheme.

But overall, the Government is ignoring the needs of the economy and the benefits of a flexible immigration policy to design a narrow, stiff immigration system. By explicitly focusing on creating a ‘high wage, high skill, high productivity economy’ through their immigration reforms, the Government is willfully ignoring the benefits of so-called ‘low skill’ or lower wage employment.

As many observers have noted, Covid-19 is shining a new light on the very workers who would lose out most from this legislation. Thousands of immigrant carers, shopkeepers, truck drivers, nurses, teachers, and others have shown just how vital they are to keeping Britain’s economy and society running. When the bill was temporarily shelved, the hope was that the Government would reevaluate its approach toward immigration in response to our new-found appreciation of these critical workers.

The points-based system they have opted for, a corrupted version of Australia’s approach, squeezes out more than just the lowest paid. It makes it hard for even highly educated people to come to the UK thanks to a completely arbitrary salary threshold of £25,600.

Though this is lower than the old salary threshold, when combined with the other point qualifications the new system is scarcely any better. One could speak fluent English (10 points), have a job offer (20 points), and be of ‘an appropriate skill level’ (20 points), and still not meet the 70 points required for a visa if they do not make at least £25,600. Say goodbye to eager, talented new overseas graduates ready to contribute. Even with the staged bracket of £23,040 to £25,599 awarding 10 points, unless one works in a shortage occupation or has a relevant PhD, they won’t get a visa.

The fact the Government is producing a ‘shortage occupation list’ of jobs that don’t need to meet all these criteria only underscores the shortcomings of the system they are proposing – while also trusting Whitehall to micromanage the UK’s labour market.

None of this is to argue against the political imperative of ending free movement from the EU, given the clear result of both the Brexit referendum and the recent general election. And there’s no doubt that it was discriminatory, allowing Europeans to come to the UK without any checks, while people from the rest of the world had to navigate an often complex visa system.

For all those faults, however, it was one of the easiest ways for migration to match the needs of the economy. Fewer barriers to entry allow immigrants to fill vacancies and provide essential services not being met by the domestic population. With the pandemic bringing international movement to a standstill, we will need more flexibility than ever before to get the economy moving again.

But instead of creating a system which better tracks immigrants of all skill levels – ‘taking back control’ by retaining the ultimate say-so – the Government has overcorrected and made it virtually impossible to fill the gaps that will inevitably appear. The ‘productive economy’ Priti Patel wants to create will never come to pass if the economy cannot fill vacancies in supposedly ‘low-skill’ industries like food service, care homes, hospitality, and logistics.

Some will see no issue with prioritising high skill and highly paid professionals. But that is exactly the problem with the continuous pitting of low-skill against high-skill. We need to move away from the idea that low pay means a job isn’t valuable, challenging, critical work. After all, who would turn around now and tell a care worker on the front line of this pandemic that their work is “low skilled”? Different sets of skills are just that — different — no more, no less.

Nor are people coming here to milk the system. Immigrants choose the UK because they value the British way of life and realise the opportunities provided. And that doesn’t mean the opportunities provided by the welfare system. It means a robust economy, entrepreneurial spirit, a liberal and free society, and brilliant culture. Immigrants see the UK as a place to succeed and prosper, and wish to repay for the opportunity. The level of skills they have on entering the country has no bearing on this desire or potential.

The Government is choosing to reduce the productive capacity of our economy, remove the cultural and social benefits of a varied and open society and in doing so limit the opportunities Brits will have to live and work overseas.

As morose as it was to hope that a global pandemic would have opened the Government’s eyes to the essential role that ‘low-skill’ workers play in our economy, it’s even more discouraging to think that they haven’t noticed at all.

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Morgan Schondelmeier is Head of External Affairs at the Adam Smith Institute.

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