The UK’s long-term cabinet-agreed immigration policy finally emerged this week, following the Migration Advisory Committee’s (MAC) report last week. The Government, whilst taking the axe to the supply of lower-skilled labour from the EU, fails to offset this with any significant reform of the wider immigration system.
EU nationals can, for the time being at least, come to the UK under free movement provisions and take employment of any kind, thereby providing a fluid labour market for UK businesses, responsive to the needs of the economy.
Non-EU nationals, however, can only come if they fit a specific immigration category, and with these categories come tight restrictions. One option is to come as the partner of a British national but (aside from having to first find a British partner) the migrant must satisfy the minimum income requirement of £18,600. Furthermore, non-EU students can only work 20 hours per week during term time and must leave the UK after their studies.
But it’s in the work category, under Tier 2 of the points-based system, where things get particularly bureaucratic and costly. Generally, only jobs recognised at degree level or above, and earning at least £30,000 a year, are capable of sponsorship. Employers loathe the system- with good reason: the employer must hold a sponsor licence and normally show that a job cannot be filled by a settled worker, by completing a resident labour market test. The employer bears the cost of: the licence (£536/£1,476 for a small/large employer); something called a ‘certificate of sponsorship’ for each migrant (£199); and the Immigration Skills Surcharge (£1,000 per year, per migrant). To top it off, the sponsoring employer must have water-tight HR systems in place or risk their licence being potentially revoked following an unannounced visit – a measure which would immediately terminate the employment of all sponsored employees.
Thus, in contrast to the EU system, the non-EU model is inflexible, costly and highly restrictive.
The long-term policy
The MAC is supposedly well placed to provide an evidence-based approach to the UK’s immigration needs. However, the MAC, a government quango, is not genuinely independent: the Home Office both funds the MAC and appoints its Chair.
The MAC report’s highlights are: no preferential treatment for EU nationals; highly skilled migrants welcome; and low-skilled ones most definitely not. Alarmingly, MAC advocates an expansion of the much-maligned-by-business Tier 2 (General) scheme to cover EU nationals.
There followed on Monday the Government’s agreed policy on the future of UK immigration, which, unsurprisingly, aligned nearly perfectly with the MAC. Was the Government faithfully sticking to its promise to be guided by MAC findings? Or perhaps the MAC really acted as a Government proxy to set the Overton Window on immigration at the restrictive end of the spectrum: no preferential treatment for EU nationals (tick); tier system for EU nationals (tick); a system based on skills and wealth (tick). Sajid Javid even got a chance to play benevolent gatekeeper of low-skilled workers: although he couldn’t help getting in a dig ( “low-skilled immigration doesn’t really add anything to the economy”) before dangling a carrot of some sector-specific visas available for lower-skilled migrants.
There may even be rationale in levelling the playing field for EU and non-EU migrants, provided the end of free movement is offset by reform of the wider immigration model, to allow greater fluidity of labour with fewer burdens on business. Many media outlets focused on supposed liberalising MAC recommendations: out goes the cap and the resident labour market test, whilst the skill level requirement is lowered from RQF level 6 to 3. However, these measures are immediately undone; firstly by the MAC’s recommendation that the minimum income requirement of £30,000 is retained, thus restricting the available positions to higher paid jobs. And secondly, by the retention and expansion of the Tier model to EU nationals, and the heavy impositions which come with it.
Much was made of the latest ONS figures which showed net EU migration falling, however, this should not obscure the fact that 101,000 more EU nationals remained in the UK in 2017 than left. Despite having effectively open borders to EU nationals, the latest data shows unemployment sitting at a mere four percent, the lowest level since 1975.
How did the MAC seek to answer the obvious question of how businesses will cope with the loss of its fluid EU labour supply? It largely didn’t, restricting itself to suggesting that, in the case of the care sector, the sector needs a “policy wider than just immigration to fix its many problems”. This surely alludes to a funding overhaul, something unlikely to be forthcoming in these austere times. The MAC/Government double-act is content to play tough on immigration, with little-to-no indication of how the existing labour workforce is supposed to step in.