2 September 2019

Why a points-based immigration system is a bad idea


Unskilled immigration is a problem, we are told.

People argue about how to restrict unskilled immigration, and by how much: lots of people favour points-based immigration systems so we can restrict unskilled immigration while continuing to import “the skills the economy needs”. But no-one ever questions whether Britain should be importing skills. Those proposing skills-based immigration systems take for granted that Britain will always have skill shortages that must be plugged by draining the young and skilled from other countries. They say we need to ensure that we only import the people we need, and those – they assume – must be skilled people.

I take issue with this. I object to the unspoken assumption that there will always be unlimited numbers of British workers eager to do the unskilled jobs for which we currently import people, particularly from Eastern European countries. And I resent the implication that British people are, and will always be, incapable of developing the skills that the economy needs.

Conversations I have had with people advocating points-based immigration systems have tended to run like this. The person I am conversing with is typically over 50, often retired, and living in a pleasant little village or market town. She is very clear about what she wants:

“Stop all these people coming. Just bring in the skilled people we need, and ban the rest.”

I ask who will pick the fruit and veg she likes to buy in the greengrocer, who will care for her 90-year old mother who has dementia and lives in a care home, who will attend to her own basic care needs when she goes into hospital. She has a ready answer:

“Put the unemployed young people to work.”

I point out that there are nowhere near enough unemployed young people to fill all the jobs. There are currently 2.37m EU nationals working in the UK, and 1.29m non-EU nationals. Of these, 15% are in unskilled and 32% in medium-low skilled occupations. That’s 1.72m people. NEETs (people aged 16-24 “Not In Employment, Education or Training”) currently number 792,000.

She has an answer for this, too:

“Young people should be working, not wasting their time studying. Far too many young people are going to university nowadays. In my day only the very brightest did. That’s how it should be.”

So her reason for favouring high-skilled immigration and restricting low-skilled is that most British young people should not aspire to higher education and well-paid jobs?

This, in a nutshell, is why I hate skills-based immigration systems. It says to young British people that they are too thick to develop the skills the economy needs. All that most of them should aspire to is a low-skilled grunt job. Those who want to “import the skills we need” are effectively giving up on the British people. I’m appalled that they have so little faith.

In any case, Britain already imports large numbers of skilled people. As of August 2019, over half of all immigrants working in the UK were in high- or medium-skilled occupations. The NHS alone accounts for 153,000 immigrants, of which a high proportion are doctors or nurses. Currently, only 72% of doctors working in the NHS are British. We import over a quarter of our top medical professionals.

But why can’t we grow our own? No, why haven’t we grown our own already? Why have we made it so difficult for British people to become doctors? The qualification requirements to study medicine are excruciatingly high and the cost is exorbitant. Shouldn’t we make it easier for British people to become doctors, rather than relying on importing people from other countries? Don’t those other countries need doctors? The same goes for other skill sets too. Take STEM, for example. Why aren’t we training enough scientists, engineers, technologists and mathematicians to meet our needs?

The fact that we have to import skills on this scale is due to the abject failure of British education and training – of all kinds – to deliver the skills that British employers need and British people deserve. Other countries have surpassed us, and now we are dependent on them. How anyone can think a skills-based immigration system is desirable is beyond me. It is a terrible indictment of government policies going back decades.  It tells us that generations of British workers have been badly let down.

Rather than tamely accepting this dire situation, we should fix it. Invest massively in training and education so that skilled jobs can be filled by British people instead of immigrants. Further education has not had the focus or funding it needs from successive government, which has harmed those who may lack academic ability but could develop valuable vocational skills. It’s time to remove age barriers to studying too, so that people of all ages can retrain to do the skilled jobs that they want and the economy needs. And stop pandering to employers that want to “buy in” skills rather than developing them. Employers should provide appropriate training for workers of all ages. Government should make sure they do.

We should aspire to have a highly-skilled, highly paid workforce, not a peasant army. The woman who wants to send young people to work in the fields and the care homes instead of studying is terribly, terribly wrong. Not only young people, but people of all ages, should study and develop their skills – and governments and employers should support and encourage them to do so.

If we developed the skills of the British people, we wouldn’t need a “points-based immigration system” to keep out the unskilled while admitting unlimited numbers of skilled people. Rather, we would then want to import low-skilled people to do the jobs for which British people are too highly skilled.

Or better still, we would want companies to invest in machines to do those jobs. For what we really want is for the countries from which employer currently import people to develop rich, vibrant economies with thriving middle classes that are not dependent on remittances from overseas workers. After all, we want to export to these countries – don’t we?

Instead of shutting the doors to certain immigrants, let’s invest in the British people, upgrading their skills so that they can do the high-skill jobs that employers want. That will not only meet the needs of existing British employers, but also attract high-tech companies to our shores. Let’s create a workforce that is the envy of the world.

Frances Coppola writes about economics and finance.