These Policies Created A Mess Last Time. Why Haven’t Any Lessons Been Learned?

Employment, Migration Trends, Visas/Work Permits

The government’s retro immigration plan weakens UK immigration controls with regard to 80% of the world during an unemployment crisis.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would be so proud of Boris Johnson for re-enacting their policy after governments since 2010 spent years of trying to clean up the mess.

In fact, a study by an official committee found that 160,000 British workers had been displaced by immigration between 1995 and 2010 and that there was a greater risk of this happening during a downturn.

Displacement is when workers lose their jobs to those from overseas who will often work for lower wages.

The report found that for every 100 more non-UK workers, 23 Brits lost out.

Like Boris Johnson, New Labour promised a similar system in 2005 and allowed immigration to let rip with no limits.

Now the government has Blair-style plans for a points-based system that would allow an immigration-fuelled profit bonanza for big business at the expense of UK workers. What are Ministers thinking?

By giving employers ‘greater scope’ to recruit from around the world (often at the expense of Brits) the plan looks set to drive an increase in non-EU numbers which in 2019 were already at an all-time record high (see Home Office Impact Assessment).

This prospect will not be welcome to around 30 million people in the UK (a clear majority) who want immigration to be more carefully controlled (see our paper on public opinion and immigration).

The government still say they aim is to get overall numbers down.

Yet this looks increasingly implausible as a host of new avenues into Britain are to be opened, including:

  • An expanded route for workers from all over the world (which the Home Office believes could lead to between 15,000 and 50,000 more non-EU workers – as well as dependants – per year). [The Home Office has pointed to significant limitations in these estimates and they should be treated with caution].
  • A new graduate route for students to stay on and work for two years – with many if not most going into unskilled roles (the Home Office says this could drive a net rise in student immigration running into the thousands each year).
  • A new route to study and work and gain citizenship for up to three million people from Hong Kong. It is far from certain that all would come, yet this reckless policy makes the UK a hostage to events.
  • Expansion of the youth mobility scheme for those aged 18-30 from the EU to work in jobs at any skill level for up to two years (dependent on the Brexit negotiations). See Telegraph, Feb. 2020.

It is clear that the Covid-19 crisis will lead to a very high level of unemployment. The number of Britons claiming unemployment benefits soared to the highest level since 1996 in April.

However, the new immigration plan astonishingly raises the risk of the mass displacement of UK workers when they are already very vulnerable. Yet the increasing reluctance of the government and media to acknowledge this reality will make monitoring it all the more difficult.

Ministers and MPs must also remember that, following the 2008 financial crisis, it took six years for the number of UK-born workers to regain its pre-crash level, while the number of workers born abroad increased by more than a million as employers sought out cheaper labour.

The government would be wise to amend their plan in order to:

have in readiness powers to impose a cap on work permits. This must be capable of being done at very short notice as the courts would rule that all applications in the pipeline should be decided under the previous rules.
postpone indefinitely the “new entrant” route that gives employers the simplest work-around to avoid meeting headline salary thresholds.
retain the long-standing requirement that jobs first be advertised in the UK. This is a vital safeguard for jobseekers that will be especially important during a period of high unemployment. Employers must do all they can to take on workers already in the UK.
Maintain the general salary threshold for high-skill workers at the level of £30,000 and the qualification criterion at the present degree level.

The government states in their impact analysis that [the changes] ‘will provide employers with greater scope to employ skilled migrants from overseas‘. Why on earth would Ministers contemplate this during a massive economic crisis?

Their own estimates suggest that certain types of immigration (e.g. non-EU students and workers) would rise – something they have not previously acknowledged. For example, their own “uncertain” estimate is that non-EU worker numbers (along with dependants) could go up by between 15,000-50,000 per year.

They also envisage that student numbers might go up (net) by thousands per year as the result of the reintroduction of a deeply-flawed graduate work route which was closed in 2012 because so many applicants were taking low-paid work.

Of course this may be offset by a possible further fall in net EU work migration over the first four years (although they note inflows are likely to fall even in the absence of these policies being enacted).

Whether the rise in non-EU numbers would be offset by a fall in EU workers is another question. It will partially depend on how the Covid-19 crisis plays out not just in the UK but also in the EU.

However, the greater incentive for millions within a much-expanded potential pool of migrant workers from much poorer and much larger developing countries around the world may mean numbers rising much faster than Ministers anticipate.

The government also wants to abolish a rule that requires employers to advertise jobs to local workers in the UK prior to attempting to fill them from overseas.

This despite the fact that the official expert committee on migration said very clearly that this rulehelps prevent any short-term displacement of the UK workforce‘.

At a time of rising unemployment, it is vital that this ‘First Chance Rule’ is not scrapped (see our piece on this topic).

The government proposals were always risky but have now been completely overtaken by the developing economic crisis.

This is absolutely not the time to be opening up seven million jobs more UK jobs to new or increased global recruitment (see our piece regarding this calculation).

19th May 2020

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