On 23 November, the Daily Telegraph reported on leaked Cabinet papers which reveal that the Government has drawn up plans to introduce an 11-month visa for low-skilled workers to come to the UK. This proposal runs counter to the economic advice of the government’s own Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) and will be seen as fiddling the immigration statistics. Enforcement is likely to be ineffectual and public confidence in government policy will be further reduced.
It has been reported that the Government is considering plans to introduce an 11-month visa for low-skilled workers to come to the UK. Recipients of these visas would have restricted entitlements and rights. It would also, presumably, be non-extendable (although the report does not mention this).
According to the press, this new visa policy would form part of the Government’s plans, “to ensure the economy has the low-skilled labour it needs.” It is unclear whether or not this visa would be open to the world or just to EU citizens. However, the Government has already declared its intention not to give preferential treatment to EU citizens in its future immigration regime, and therefore it is likely that the visa will be open to the global labour market.
There is no indication that this proposal will definitely find its way into the white paper on immigration due to be released in December. However, if such a system were to be implemented, it would be disastrous for the following reasons.
Problems with the proposal
- It distorts the immigration figures
Introducing an 11-month visa would mean that visa-holders would not be counted towards net migration figures. To be classified officially as an immigrant, an individual must be in the UK for at least a year. For this reason, Jonathan Portes has called it, “a pretty transparent attempt to massage the immigration figures.”
- It contravenes the findings of the MAC report on low-skilled immigration
Giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee in October, Alan Manning, Chairman of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) said that low skilled migrants have been a cost to the treasury and that they make the UK a slightly lower-wage and lower-productivity economy.The MAC also reported in September that, “for lower-skilled workers, we do not see the need for a work-related scheme with the possible exception of a seasonal agricultural workers scheme… This does not mean there would be no supply of low-skilled migrant workers – most of the existing stock would remain and there would likely be a continued flow through family migration or the existing youth mobility scheme.”Considering that the youth mobility scheme and family migration route remain intact and that the Government has already established a pilot scheme by which to bring 2,500 non-EU seasonal agricultural workers to the UK from spring next year, serious questions must be raised as to the purpose of an 11-month low-skilled worker visa.
- There is no indication that the visa would be capped or apply only to certain sectors
Nothing in the leaked papers suggests that the 11-month visa would be limited to a certain number of workers or restricted only to particular economic sectors. It is hard to reconcile this with the Government’s claim to have ensured an end to free movement. While by definition the requirement for a visa cannot be classified as free movement, providing an unlimited number of visas would mean that many low-skilled jobs in the UK economy would be exposed to competition from the global labour market, thus contravening the primary reason behind ending free movement in the first place.
- Enforcement of such a system would be at best ineffectual
The administrative burden of issuing 11-month visas would undoubtedly put an additional burden on an already overstretched Home Office. There is also high probability that many holders of an 11-month visa would choose to overstay. Labour’s Sector Based Scheme (SBS) for hospitality workers establishes a precedent for this. It was set up in May 2003 to allow 10,000 non-EU nationals a year to obtain visas to work in the UK hospitality industry, but was terminated in July 2005 in part due to, “evidence that the scheme was being used as a means of facilitating illegal entry.”
There were only 21,400 removals of immigration offenders (voluntary and involuntary, and not including Foreign National Offenders) in 2017, out of what former senior Home Office officials have estimated to be an illegal immigrant population of about a million people. This suggests that the Home Office is not sufficiently equipped to deal with current numbers, let alone a significant increase of overstayers potentially arriving on the 11-month visa route. Recent reports by the Independent Inspector of Borders and Immigration have also highlighted serious deficiencies in the ability and capacity of immigration enforcement teams to identify, locate and remove overstayers. A visa that resulted in a large increase in the number of illegals in the UK would make a mockery of the Government’s expressed wish to control immigration.
- It would reduce public confidence in the Government’s handling of immigration
An Ipsos poll in May found that only 36% of the public trusted Theresa May to make the right decisions for the UK in regard to immigration (a fall from 57% in September 2016). A policy such as this would not improve trust in the Prime Minister, especially as the Conservative Party have campaigned in the last three elections on a manifesto promise to reduce immigration – which is in line with the wishes of nearly three-quarters of the public who want to see immigration reduced to the tens of thousands.
This proposal is unlikely to be seen by the public as anything other than a cynical attempt to arrange a significant influx of foreign workers to the UK while avoiding adding them to the net migration figures – a total that the Government is still committed to reducing to 100,000. Furthermore, ending free movement was intended to restrict immigration into lower-skilled jobs, which the Bank of England finds has put some downward pressure on wages in the semi-skilled and unskilled services sector. However, this scheme seems simply to be replacing cheap labour from the EU with potentially even cheaper labour from the global labour market. Replacing Polish workers with cheaper Bangladeshis cannot possibly be the outcome that those who wished to see an end to free movement had in mind. Finally, the Government’s track record on addressing illegal immigration is already very poor; this proposal could only increase the number of people exploiting our visa system as back-door into the country.
Evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee, October 2018, URL: http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/home-affairs-committee/postbrexit-migration/oral/91576.html
MAC report, September 2018, URL: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/741926/Final_EEA_report.PDF
MAC report, ‘Migrant seasonal workers’, 2013, URL: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/257242/migrant-seasonal-workers.pdf
Ipsos Political monitor, May 2018, URL: https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2018-05/pm-may-2018-slides-wave2.pdf