Alp Mehmet is Chairman of Migration Watch UK.
“Immigrants? We sent out search parties to get them to come….. and made it hard for Britons to get work”. That was a 2013 headline in the Daily Mail quoting Lord Mandelson.
If reports are to be believed, and the Government have not denied them, it seems that the Tony Blair government wheeze that threw open the UK’s borders is in danger of being repeated – and on a whole new scale – by a Conservative Party led by Liz Truss. Treasury orthodoxy is on the verge of triumphing yet again, and to hell with the consequences.
The difference between now and 20 years ago, of course, is that since the start of 2021, the immigration system has already been loosened way beyond what it was when New Labour turned on the immigration tap. The result was a record 1.1. million visas granted for overseas nationals to come and live in the UK in the past year..
Since the introduction at the start of 2021, the much-vaunted “Australian style” points-based system (PBS), that supposed cure-all for our migration needs and woes, has turned out to be a ruse for lower salary and qualifications and the abandonment of the popular requirement for jobs first to be advertised on the domestic market.
The result has been nearly 200,000 work visa grants (excluding short-term work) to non-EU nationals in the year to June 2022 (over 95,000 more than the previous year), alongside this around 30,000 grants were to EU nationals who, since we came out definitively from the EU, need visas to work in the UK.
None of these figures include employees transferred by major multinational corporations from overseas branches to the UK – the so-called intra-company transfer scheme (ITC). Nor do they include students completing studies at UK universities, who are able to stay on for two years to do any job, even if it is to stack shelves in supermarkets or deliver takeaways. Furthermore, unlimited numbers of overseas students of any nationality, who qualify from any of 50 named universities around the world, will also be able to come to do any job.
The Government has offered some examples of where the shortages are, including broadband engineers (BE). But BEs can be brought in in unlimited numbers already. So why is it necessary to place BEs on the Shortage of Occupation List (SOL), as the Government is proposing? Might the answer be that employers can’t recruit locally at the going rate and make the case for shortages in the sector to secure a place for broadband engineers on the SOL?
Why would this be helpful to employers? Because jobs on the SOL allow them to recruit overseas at 80 per cent of the going rate. There is no shortage of potential recruits in countries such as India and Nigeria at even 80 per cent of what employers would have to pay if they recruit locally. This is true of all occupations on the SOL. In many cases, getting a slot on the SOL is little more than a straight undercutting measure.
Perhaps this explains why repeated Government pledges to train more domestic workers, including doctors and nurses, have not been kept. After all, why bother going through the lengthy and expensive process of training your own when there are unlimited numbers available overseas, prepared to work for less pay?
At the lower end of the skills range, we are regularly told there are major shortages of care workers and seasonal agricultural workers (fruit pickers). Why? There are now 40,000 seasonal workers (the programme started as a trial, with 10,000 when Sajid Javid was Home Secretary). It seems this number is not only going to be increased, but that the period of employment is going to be increased from the present six months. Why? Have employers tried paying more for the backbreaking work, improving conditions of employment and mechanising? As for care workers, since February this year, overseas national care workers have also been on the SOL. Again, I ask, why?
However, the most galling recent news is that the Prime Minister is pressing Kemi Badenoch to secure a free trade agreement with India by Diwali – 24 October. The sensible Badenoch is not happy, because the Indian government is pushing for what will, effectively, mean much freer access to the UK for 1.4 billion people, a population that is some three times that of the EU and very much poorer. According to the same report, Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, is also resisting the pressure to cave to Number 10 and Treasury for a deal at all cost that will add significantly to immigration.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Business Secretary is sceptica, too, and will only support the proposals if they are “shown to increase GDP per capita”. He is right to have doubts. In the 20 years following the turn of the century, the population grew by 8 million (that’s eight Birminghams). About 7 million of the growth was due to immigration (direct and indirect). And yet, in the decade after 2010, GDP per head hardly changed
The Prime Minister and Chancellor have taken the political decision to grow the economy as a means of fighting our way out of the economic quagmire we find ourselves in. Good luck to them. Recruiting the right, genuinely high-skilled, migrants where they are needed could be good for the economy if done with rigorous controls (such as a cap and reasonably high skill and salary thresholds which we presently do not have).
However, sending out search parties overseas to get them to come, á la Blair, to do the lower-skill work, often to shore up struggling businesses, reduce labour costs and bear down on wages (particularly at the lower end), is not the way to do it. It could well cost the Conservatives the next election.