One of the useful things about the points-based immigration system – apart from Taking Back Control, of course – is that it allows one to see in quite granular detail what the Government’s immigration policy actually is.
Such analysis is much more useful than listening to the tough language of the Home Office, or vague talk by senior ministers about getting net immigration down at some point – not least because it paints a completely different picture.
One might be surprised to learn, for example, that since winning an overall majority in 2019 the Conservatives have more or less scrapped the Resident Labour Market Test, which required employers to advertise a position in the UK before seeking applicants overseas. Indeed, one analysis argues that this was precisely to offset the impact of Taking Back Control:
“At the moment employers are free to recruit from the European Economic Area, which has a population of over 500 million. The end of the Brexit transition period means that this pool is shrinking to Britain and Ireland, which have a combined population of around 70 million.”
Little wonder that, as Fraser Nelson pointed out in a recent piece:
“Both sides agreed Brexit would mean lower migration and higher salaries. Not many would make that case now. Rather than rising, real-term incomes are midway through their sharpest fall since postwar records began.”
Indeed. To select one illustrative example, here is an article in the Architect’s Journal plaintively asking: ‘Can you still afford to be an architect in 2023?’
But there’s no risk of employers having to raise salaries in order to try and attract talent; the Government has kindly declared architect a Shortage Occupation, meaning employees can be brought in on a Skilled Worker visa for just “80 per cent of going rate: £26,320 (£13.50 per hour)”. That’ll keep us in the global race.
One could spend an entire article listing such examples – the decision to ignore the Migration Advisory Committee on student visas was in the news over the weekend. The point is that the Government’s rhetorical commitment to bringing immigration down is a complete fiction.
In fairness to Rishi Sunak, it has always been so. David Cameron liked to talk about bringing it down to the “tens of thousands”, but never had any plan to do that, and his successors never developed one. Speaking to the House of Lords’ economic affairs committee in March, Jeremy Hunt did a good job of sketching out what it would involve:
“If you want to change our economic model – which I think is what the country decided when we voted collectively for Brexit – to a model that is not dependent on unlimited migration… then you have to have another plan.”
“I’m hoping that we will see, in future forecasts of migration, an economy that is less dependent on migration… I want to move to a high-wage, high-skill economy.”
Sounds good. But airy talk about the long term is easy – the problem is that the moment for starting the difficult spade-work of tackling the long term seldom obviously arrives. And in the short term, it is always most expedient to hit the immigration button, as the Chancellor did in his first budget.
Suella Braverman took some tottering steps in the general direction of candour in her speech to the National Conservatism Conference, fleshing out Hunt’s outline with some actual examples:
“There is no good reason why we can’t train enough HGV drivers, butchers or fruit pickers. Brexit enables us to build a high-skilled, high-wage economy that is less dependent on low-skilled foreign labour.”
Some of those are weird examples. Nobody, but nobody, cares about fruit-pickers, who come and go on seasonal visas. Higher-skilled workers, such as our embattled architects, would have been a better choice – not least if the Conservatives hope to expand a coalition for action on immigration to include skilled professionals.
But drivers is a telling example. Earlier this month, the Financial Times ran an article under the charming headline ‘UK haulage industry forced to train army of homegrown drivers‘. Such resentful coverage in the business press (“forced” is a very telling choice of word) would be a hallmark of any actual effort to get immigration down.
Such a strategy would have to run through the whole business of government “like a stick of rock”, to borrow a phrase from the Miliband era; it cannot just be left to the Home Office, and to isolated initiatives such as yesterday’s announcement regarding student dependents.
It would also mean taking on a lot of vested interests and slaughtering some Tory sacred cows to boot.
It will never make sense to the imagination of the Treasury, to which all revenue looks the same, to waste 18 years gestating future taxpayers when it can, in the words of one former SpAd I discussed childcare policy with, “just import people”.
Likewise there will not come a moment when employers and their lobbyists announce that yes, now is a good time for them to start internalising wage and training costs they have palmed off for so long; universities are never not going to plead the need for huge numbers of foreign students to subsidise the ever-increasing volume of domestic students passing through their doors.
(Although given that the result of all this tertiary education is increasingly a big unpaid-loans tab for the government, usurious marginal tax rates for young workers, and a skills crisis so acute employers apparently can’t fill vacancies, ministers could be forgiven for asking what it is we’re collectively paying for. “A higher education system that seemingly can only survive by selling long-term immigration, while failing to provide British nationals with the technical skills we need”, as Nick Timothy puts it.)
Government would have to take the initiative. Ministers would need to honestly confront the various reasons our economy and public services are so reliant on immigrant labour and then start implementing policies to cut that dependency – not at some point in the future, but now.
There are various ways to go about doing that. A crackdown on the economically inactive, and the dissonance between the huge numbers of people on out-of-work benefits and job openings, would be one.
Another could be to embrace life-long learning, diverting school-leavers away from the debt-fuelled 2:1 treadmill in favour of developing employer-supported professional qualifications which people could acquire in-work, and over time in response to their particular career development.
In other parts of the public sector, ministers could break the cycle altogether by mandating CV-blind applications for positions which don’t require a specific, technical qualification. In the NHS, it could roll back the academisation of nursing, as some veteran nurses have long called for.
And if we want more British doctors, why not stop subsidising a fixed number of places, let as many train as wish to – and then pay back the student loans of those who actually work for the NHS, rather than going overseas?
The private sector could be encouraged to participate in developing such qualifications by making them a condition of something being declared a Shortage Occupation, and redesigning such declarations so that they could be tapered – a short-term solution to a skills shortage, not a long-term alternative to training British workers.
There are surely many other forms such a strategy could take. But even to set out a few ideas illustrates the total absence of any such thinking on the part of the Government. Without it, however, a “sensible” immigration policy will always leave the tricky business of bringing numbers down to a tomorrow that will never arrive.