UK immigration policy on ice: Will it see a spring thaw?

As the first frosts of winter arrived in the UK, so did data from the government’s statistical bureau that sent a shiver through some: in one year, net migration to Britain had soared to more than half a million – a figure unprecedented since records began in 1964. David Sapsted reports.

The revelation by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that 504,000 more people had arrived from abroad than had left – smashing the previous record of 329,000 in 2015 – only served to intensify a debate over immigration that has divided the country and pitched politicians against business leaders and academics.
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Political reaction

True, much of the increase in the year to June was down to a string of exceptional circumstances, notably a surge in the number of foreign students following the lifting of Covid restrictions; the arrival of tens of thousands fleeing the war in Ukraine; and the granting of visas to Afghan refugees and to Hong Kong holders of British National (Overseas) passports.Yet, regardless of these one-off elements, the net migration total sent tremors through Downing Street. It appeared to fear the news would prompt a backlash among the populace, even though surveys have shown the British public are now markedly more sympathetic towards migrants than they were in pre-Brexit days.The immediate political reaction to the ONS figures was for government spokespeople to say Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was considering a plan to clamp down on the number of overseas students coming to the UK by banning those taking “low quality” degrees.Nobody quite knew what that meant, but it prompted a warning from Professor Brian Bell – the Chair of the government’s independent Migration Advisory Committee and an economics professor at King’s College, London – to warn that universities could go bankrupt if ministers ever attempted to enact such legislation.He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Most universities for most courses lose money teaching British students and offset that loss by charging more for international students. If you close down the international route, I’m not sure how the university continues to survive.”Professor Bell said London, Cambridge and Oxford would do well if overseas students were only allowed to enrol at ‘elite’ universities, but he added: “What about Newcastle, what about the north-east, the north-west, Scotland?”He pointed out that what the government was contemplating was not just an immigration policy, but also an education policy, as it could lead to a “massive increase” in British students’ fees to make up for the loss of foreign students’ financial contributions.Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, agreed that political decisions on immigration should not be made as a consequence of the latest ONS figures.“These unusually high levels of net migration result from a unique set of circumstances following the war in Ukraine and the recovery from the Covid-19 crisis,” she said.“We cannot assume they represent a ‘new normal’, and it would be rash to take major policy decisions based only on these numbers. Some of the most important contributors to non-EU immigration are not expected to continue indefinitely, such as the arrival of Ukrainians.”

Dilemmas for policymakers

Nevertheless, the political rhetoric has continued, with Home Secretary Suella Braverman reportedly objecting to some of the conditions in a hoped-for trade deal with India because they would give businesspeople and students easier access to the UK.She has even suggested that the nation’s “ultimate aspiration” should be to reduce net migration to below 100,000 a year – a decade-old Conservative Party objective that has repeatedly proved neither viable nor desirable.Shortly after Ms Braverman – whose parents, incidentally, emigrated from Mauritius and Kenya – outlined her immigration ambitions, the government think-tank, the Office for Budget Responsibility, came out with a revised estimate of net migration of 200,000-plus a year for the foreseeable future. This, in turn, prompted Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt to say immigration “will be very important for the economy”.Indeed, politicians from Mr Sunak on down have repeatedly paid lip service to the importance of overseas skills to the nation while, simultaneously, calling for immigration to be reduced.Mr Hunt summed up the government’s apparently contradictory position. After saying how important immigration was, he added: “We want to bring down the level of migration that we need, but that means improving the skills of people here in the UK. It’s when you start raising the skills of people at home that you don’t need so many people to come from overseas.”And it is not just Conservative Party politicians saying this. Addressing the annual conference of Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in the autumn, Sir Keir Starmer, Leader of the Labour Party, said the economy must be steered away from its “immigration dependency”.Like his Tory opponents, Sir Keir called on businesses to focus on “investing more in training up workers who are already here”, while adding that a future Labour government would be “pragmatic” over visas for overseas skills and would improve the existing points-based immigration system.All of which has led to business leaders pulling their hair out at a time when the record number of job vacancies exceeds the number of people registered as unemployed, and when sectors from IT to financial services, engineering to R&D, and truck driving to hospitality are confronting chronic shortages.

Businesses' view

Companies say they are doing all they can to train new staff and upskill existing workers, but add that none of this will solve the immediate and medium-term labour shortages. The British Chambers of Commerce has repeatedly called for an “urgent” overhaul of the Shortage Occupation List to make it easier for firms to hire overseas talent, while the CBI, the UK’s largest business organisation, warned the government in November that the nation’s growth prospects could only be maintained by an increase in immigration.Tony Danker, the organisation’s Director-General, described the government’s approach to immigration as a “barrier to growth”, adding: “Let’s be honest with people: our labour shortages are vast. We have lost hundreds of thousands of people to economic inactivity post Covid. And anyone who thinks they’ll all be back any day now is kidding themselves.“Secondly, we don’t have enough Brits to go round for the vacancies that exist, and there’s a skills mismatch in any case. And third, believing automation can step in to do the job in most cases is unrealistic.”Chris Harber, Head of the immigration team at law firm Boyes Turner, points out that at least Mr Sunak had made a commitment in the autumn to ensure that British businesses would have access to the “best and brightest talent” from around the world by creating one of the world’s most attractive visa regimes for entrepreneurs and highly skilled people.But Mr Harber added: “As with most policy announcements of this nature, the details are sparse. However, we expect that the Home Office will make more detailed announcements in the spring to coincide with the usual updates to the immigration rules that take place in April.”In an online article, the immigration team at law firm Osborne Clarke said that for many years UK immigration policy had tried to balance the need to attract and support high-skilled international workers with a recognition that there were many roles that traditionally needed to be filled by low-skilled immigrants. One current problem was that the Covid-19 pandemic might have masked the impact of Brexit and the end of access to a large pool of visa-free workers from the EU.“A new government with new officials in key posts presents an opportunity to draw up an immigration policy with fresh ideas that can balance the needs of industry across all sectors,” the firm said.“It needs to be borne in mind, however, that the existing government is moving politically to the right and needs to be seen to be managing numbers of immigrants entering the UK. Any policy that is dictated purely by numbers and not incorporating economic and social need runs a risk of being, at best, pointless and, at worst, destructive for economic growth.”It seems the UK’s great immigration debate has echoes in the words of the late Sydney J Harris, a renowned US journalist and author: “Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.”

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