UK expecting more visa curbs to cut migration

Faced with record net migration last year and a growing clamour from the right wing of the Conservative Party, the UK government is looking at further action to curb legal immigration.

UK expecting more visa curbs to cut migration.1
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In a pre-emptive move ahead of Thursday figures showing net migration had reached an all-time high of 606,000 in 2022, the government announced that, from January, overseas post-graduate students on non-research courses would no longer be entitled to bring family dependants to the UK.

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An exceptional year

Last year's migration total was boosted by some exceptional circumstances, including the arrival of about 200,000 Ukrainians and 58,000 Hongkongers under special visa programmes.But led by Home Secretary Suella Braverman, a section of the Conservative Party is putting pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to take decisive action to honour the 2019 general election pledge that "overall numbers (of immigrants) will come down".In fact, the net migration figure for the year to June last year had already hit a record of 504,000. And that figure only covered legal migration in a year when 45,000 illegal immigrants crossed the Channel from France in small-boat, people-smuggling operations.In a bid the placate the critics, the government announced the crackdown on students' dependants, whose visa numbers have grown from 19,139 in 2020 to 135,788 last year.Mr Sunak said that restricting dependant visas would make a "significant difference to the numbers", with the only ones entitled to visas next year being the partners and children of post-graduate students on courses designated as research programmes.Ms Braverman told the House of Commons that the move "strikes the right balance" between bringing down migration and "protecting the economic benefits that students can bring to the UK".

Universities respond

Others, however, were not convinced, not least the leading universities that have become dependent on the fees generated by overseas students, 490,000 of whom got UK visas last year.The University and College Union, which represents university staff, called the curbs on dependants a "vindictive move" that was causing "deep concern". Jo Grady, the union's general-secretary, said family members of overseas students "bring huge value to our society and deserve the right to live alongside their loved ones whilst they study".Adam Habib, director of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, went further, telling BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the government's move was "a terrible decision" for three reasons."First," he said, "a financial challenge. Second, it raises issues of coherence in government. And third a human rights question. What this decision runs the risk of doing is making sure these institutions, these universities which are dependent on the fee income of international students, go through a financial crisis."We are already seeing financial crises in universities over the last year - there have been strikes over the last year, and vice-chancellors are having to manage that problem - but you will aggravate that problem."Despite the criticism, the government is understood to be considering further measures to cut legal migration, including raising the minimum salary requirement (currently £26,200) for skilled workers.

Businesses continue to call for more immigration

Any such move would be vehemently opposed by British businesses who continue to face a shortage of workers with the required skills. The Confederation of British Industry and British Chambers of Commerce are among the groups that have repeatedly called for more professions to be added to the government's Shortage Occupation List, which makes it easier for firms to hire the overseas talent they need.A recent survey by the Federation of Small Businesses found that 80% of small firms were struggling to recruit candidates with suitable skills at a time when there are still about a million job vacancies in the UK - 282,000 more than before the pandemic struck.Sky News published a report this week showing how firms were recruiting outside Europe to secure the skills they need, "with India in particular providing staff to fill key vacancies".Louisa Cole, principal associate at law firm Eversheds Sutherland, which compiled the report, said: "Since the UK exited lockdown we have seen skills shortages exposed and businesses look overseas for talented workers to plug the gaps revealed."We knew that UK businesses leaned on international talent, but since leaving the EU many have looked further afield than the EU as freedom of movement ended."In some respects there is now a level playing field for those outside of the EU when coming to the UK."This has been evident in the likes of the financial services sector where UK firms have brought more talent from countries such as India, China, Nigeria and South Africa post-Brexit."In a recent briefing paper on the impact of immigration on the UK labour market, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford pointed out that the number of jobs in the UK economy is not fixed."Migrants may compete with existing workers in the UK for jobs, but they also cause the number of jobs to increase," said the report. "Research shows that the impacts of migration on wages and employment prospects for UK-born workers is small. Low-wage workers are more likely to lose out from immigration while medium and high-paid workers are more likely to gain, but the effects are small."The wage effects of immigration are likely to be greatest for resident workers who are migrants themselves."In a briefing paper last November, the observatory said three factors had come together to make the number of visas granted to non-EU citizens unusually high: the introduction of visa routes for Ukrainian refugees and Hong Kong British Nationals (Overseas) status holders; an increase in international student numbers; and an increase in skilled work visa grants, particularly in the health and care sector."High levels of non-EU visa grants cannot be assumed to be a ‘new normal’," concluded the report. "The future outlook for visa grants is always uncertain. However, some of the recent contributors to non-EU immigration are not expected to continue indefinitely, such as the arrival of Ukrainian refugees."Higher immigration usually leads to higher emigration because most non-EU citizens on work and study eventually leave the UK. But the expected emigration typically takes 1-3 years to materialise. This means that estimates of net migration may be unusually high over the next couple of years before emigration catches up."Recent immigration patterns are not simply the result of the end of free movement and the introduction of the post-Brexit immigration policy. The Ukraine visa schemes were not part of the policy for replacing free movement, for example."The post-Brexit system is likely to have had some impact on non-EU visa grants, however - for example, via the extension of work visas to care workers and seasonal workers and the decision to grant international students post-study work rights."Ben Willmott, head of public policy for the CIPD, says the government needs to continue to refine the UK's points-based immigration system and reform skills policy to help address labour and skills shortages. "It’s essential the UK’s immigration system succeeds in its aim of enabling employers to bring in migrant workers for skilled roles which are otherwise hard to fill. However, just 15% of typically larger employers have sponsored migrant workers since January 2021. This suggests policymakers should continue to refine the system to make it as flexible and user-friendly as possible, for example by extending the Youth Mobility Scheme to EU nationals. If the government really wants to address skills shortages and support the employment and training of UK-born workers, it needs to work more closely with employers to reform failing areas of skills policy such as the Apprenticeship Levy."The CIPD also called for wider reform of skills and other areas of policy such as innovation and business support as part of the development of a new approach to industrial strategy, "one that can boost labour market participation, training and productivity growth across all sectors of the economy.”And while opinion polls have shown an increasingly relaxed attitude among the British public since Brexit over the issue of legal migration, the same does not appear to be true in the ranks of government.The latest net migration figures seem certain to only heighten what one political reporter described as "the turmoil" that exists in Conservative ranks over the issue.

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