An orderly post-Brexit system is actually in place
Last Thursday’s huge 504,000 net migration figure is another blow to the Government’s standing on a subject which they ought to own. And to make matters worse for the Tories, though not the country, Labour is sounding more sensible on immigration than it has for years.
Many commentators (including Matthew Goodwin in these pages) are hammering the Government for this dramatic failure to fulfil the 2019 election promise to reduce overall numbers and are predicting a huge surge in support for the Reform party.
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Yet, dig under the headlines about that unsustainable number — alongside employer demands for even higher inflows to tackle labour shortages — and we actually have in place a well-balanced post-Brexit system for legal migration.
Unlike in the era of EU free movement, almost all of that 504,000 net migration number is covered by student, work or refugee visas. And with the exception of the probable one-off spike in the controlled refugee inflow (unlike Channel boats) from Ukraine, Hong Kong and Afghanistan, most of the migration will be temporary.
The big inflow of students, probably also a one-off post-Covid spike, reflects our national strength in higher education and is broadly beneficial. There should be tighter control over students bringing in dependents, but as there is relatively little student overstay, there is a strong case for taking them out of the migration statistics entirely.
There should also be a switch in focus away from that net migration figure which swings around, driven by short term flows, to the more important figure for our national future: those granted permanent residence every year. Currently migrants can apply for permanent residence after five years, and that should be extended to seven. But last year just 106,000 people were granted permanent residence, a less frightening number than the 1 million-plus visas granted in the year to June or that 504,000 headline figure.
What about work migration? Only about 20% of the net migration number was work visas even though employers point to an alleged one million vacancies. But the U.K. already has a very open work visa system, with almost two-thirds of all jobs in the economy (those paying £25,000 a year or more, starting well below average earnings) qualifying. We do not need to liberalise it further; indeed there is evidence that some of the business sectors that complain most loudly are barely even using the existing visa system.
Finding the right balance between the needs of the economy and the popular desire for slower demographic change and prioritising work opportunities for existing citizens is not simple. But it is fair to point out that economic growth over the past 15 years has been weak despite historically high migrant inflows.
There are, however, reforms that could fill vacancies in acceptable ways. For example, the Youth Mobility Scheme could be expanded. This allows tens of thousands of 18-30 year olds from Australia, New Zealand and South Korea, among other places, to work for two years with limited access to public services and no dependents. And why not look at jobs on the Shortage Occupation List (allowing employers to bypass migration rules) and gear our training system to fill them?
Employers say too many young people have lost their work ethic, but if that is the case then we need to help them re-discover it. There are also very few jobs — agriculture is a notable exception — where British people will not work if pay and conditions are right.
Some argue that we should reverse the post-Brexit priority and restrict skilled migration while being more open for lower-paid jobs. But this would not be popular, and it would remove any incentive to sort out low pay in social care (responsible for about 20% of all vacancies) or do anything about the six million adults without qualifications.
The U.K. is not an anti-immigration country. In fact, there is an institutional bias towards high inflows led by the Treasury, employers and universities. Against them stands the much-vilified Home Office and still largely sceptical public opinion.
Migration numbers will return to more normal levels and, in the meantime, Rishi Sunak should call Keir Starmer’s bluff and seek more cross-party consensus on resisting employer pressure for further liberalisation and stopping those Channel boats.
David Goodhart works for the Policy Exchange think tank. His report ‘Compassionate but Controlled’ is available on its website