Electoral politics, rather than economic necessity, are behind the cap on non-EU economic immigration.
On 19 July, an ‘interim cap’ is to be imposed on non-EU economic migration to the UK, pending more permanent measures which will be introduced in March 2011. The cap will affect those seeking entry for work under the points-based system. The number of points required for admission under Tier 1 of the system as a highly skilled migrant (based on age, earnings and qualifications) goes up immediately, and the numbers admitted to find employment in this category between 19 July and the end of March 2011 are to be pegged at 2009 levels. The number of approvals under Tier 2 (for those coming to fill vacancies in shortage occupations, or which employers cannot fill from the resident labour force) will be cut by about six per cent from 2009 levels. This will mean a reduction of around 2,000 migrants admitted over a period of nearly nine months.
The March 2011 measures to cut non-EU economic migration are currently the subject of a consultation exercise, in which the government is asking employers and other interested parties to respond to questions about how the reduction should be achieved. The consultation asks whether the government should follow the Australian and New Zealand ‘pool’ system, which introduces competition among applicants who obtain the requisite number of points, or the American ‘first come first served’ system. Certain categories are to be exempt from capping in both the interim and the permanent scheme, such as entrepreneurs and investors, representatives of overseas companies, ‘elite’ sports people, religious ministers and the domestic servants of the very rich. And the consultation document asks respondents how more of the very wealthy can be attracted to the UK.
The measures reflect the pledge in the Conservative election manifesto, which promised that only those with most to offer the British economy would be allowed in – as part of a package to ‘mend Britain’s broken society’ and ‘restore a sense of national purpose’. The Liberal Democrats pledged ‘firm but fair’ immigration policies, including a regional points-based system to ensure that migrants can work only where they are needed. Their proposed amnesty for undocumented migrants was an early casualty of the coalition.
Very dubious rationale
In her announcement, home secretary, Theresa May paid tribute to the ‘contribution that migrants have brought … not just to the economy’. So what is the rationale for the cap? It is, she said, designed to tackle ‘unlimited migration’, which ‘places unacceptable pressure on public services, school places, and the provision of housing’.
The phrase ‘unlimited migration’ gives the impression of complete, anarchic lack of controls and of public services being overwhelmed by the numbers. When it comes to non-EU migrants, nothing could be further from the truth. Since 1973, when Britain joined the Common Market (the previous name for the EU), there has been a stark contrast between the free movement rights of EU nationals and the tight controls imposed on non-EU migrants, for whom obtaining a work permit is a tortuous, lengthy and rigorous process. The only unskilled occupation for which work permits are available – seasonal agricultural work – is reserved for workers from the new EU member states of Romania and Bulgaria (and even then, the number of permits is limited under provisions allowing member states to impose transitional controls on ‘accession state’ workers). As for workers from outside the EU, employers may only hire them to fill posts in ‘shortage occupations’ (which are set out in a very precise, detailed and regularly updated list), or to fill posts for which no resident or EU worker can be found. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), numbers of people migrating to the UK are on a downward curve – and non-EU migrants coming for work are a small fraction of those.
So migration for work from outside Europe is certainly not ‘unlimited’. What about ‘unacceptable pressure on public services, school places and the provision of housing’? Once again, this is misleading. While EU nationals generally have full access to all social benefits and housing on the same basis as British citizens (those from the central and eastern European accession states have to be in registered employment for a year first), the visas of non-EU economic migrants are issued subject to the condition of ‘no recourse to public funds’. That means no welfare benefits and no public housing. Only schools and NHS treatment are freely available to non-EU economic migrant workers and their families – but the small numbers involved mean that the impact is negligible. And in terms of social justice, why shouldn’t migrant workers be entitled to public services funded by their taxes and national insurance contributions?
But pressures on services result from a market approach to migration, whereby the benefits accrue to employers and to the economy, but the migrants themselves and local populations bear the burdens. Taking housing as an example, in the housing bubble of the last couple of decades, the social housing sector, ravaged by Thatcher’s policies of council house sales, was completely neglected, resulting in an acute and widespread shortage of low-cost housing. Local authorities could not even use revenues from the sales to replace the properties sold. Now, migrants are being blamed for ‘pressures’ on social housing caused by government policies.
The impact on the economy
The coalition says that migrants should only be brought in where every reasonable avenue to recruit a resident worker has been exhausted. This mantra echoes the Tory press’s tireless campaign against migration during the election campaign, with the Spectator claiming at one point that over ninety-eight per cent of new jobs were filled by migrants – a story repeated by the tabloids but found to be untrue by Left Foot Forward, which analysed the statistics. The argument also echoes Gordon Brown’s rash ‘British jobs for British workers’ soundbite. The consultation document suggests that employers should be given more responsibility for training local workers, to enable them to do the jobs currently filled by migrants. (Whether, after England’s abysmal showing in the World Cup, the training will include football, an area notoriously short of home-grown talent, is a moot point.)
Frank Field, cross-party enforcer and scourge of single fathers and migrants, recently proposed bringing in much harsher discipline to deal with what might be described as the recalcitrant unemployed who, he claims (at least in his Birkenhead constituency) don’t think it’s worth while to take jobs paying under £300 per week. He represents a school of thought apparently gaining ground within the coalition, which would use the recession to force unemployed people into low-wage jobs on pain of withdrawal of benefits and destitution. Capping migration would, they argue, feed into this strategy, not only returning British jobs to British workers but also disciplining the native unemployed.
But the argument that the cap will restore jobs to Britons ignores the fact that, as mentioned above, non-EU workers’ jobs tend to demand a high level of skills and qualifications, which native workers can’t be trained up to do at short notice. The argument also ignores research which shows that migration actually creates more jobs, rather than taking them from local people. These points were obliquely acknowledged by Theresa May, who in her speech introducing the cap, went out of her way to reassure business that the cap would not harm the economy. But employers’ organisations warned against measures which made it more difficult and expensive to hire workers with the skills they need. May’s cabinet colleagues Michael Gove and David Willetts, education and universities secretaries of state, were not convinced either. And the government’s impact assessment of the interim scheme accepted that ‘as fewer migrant workers will be available, there may be negative impacts in the short-term on businesses and the labour market, particularly in sectors where there are higher volumes of migrant workers [including] health, education, financial services, tourism and hospitality, business services, computer services, and public administration’. The only benefit listed is the decrease in UK Border Agency (UKBA) case-working costs – but even assuming that fewer people will apply for visas, which is by no means certain, any reduction in administrative costs would be more than offset by the loss of fee income from applications.
There is no sound economic reason for limiting migration, which generally benefits employers and the local and national economy. The impact, in the short term at least, will be damaging to the economy. When the media is not being alarmist over immigration, it is bemoaning Britain’s ageing population and asking who will work to pay for all the extra pensions. But consistency has never been seen as a virtue in politics, and the cap satisfies the political need to appear to be doing something to allay voters’ tabloid-inflated ‘concerns’ about immigration. As May said in her announcement, ‘Controls … will provide the public with greater confidence in the system’. The government cannot limit migration from EU member states (except, temporarily, from the two newest accession states, Romania and Bulgaria) without leaving the European Union, which is not an option – at least at present, as it would probably destroy not just the coalition but the Conservative Party too.
The government has followed many of the suggestions of the anti-immigration organisation MigrationWatch, which has argued for an explicit cap on immigration, and for breaking the link between working in the UK and obtaining settlement. It was the Labour government which introduced the concept of ‘earned citizenship’ and provided for the expulsion of those who failed an integration test. The price for the coalition’s electoral politics will, as usual, be paid by migrants. The cap plays to and feeds the relentless popular racism of the tabloids, which blames poor ‘immigrants’ – whether from Africa, Asia or eastern Europe – for all of society’s ills, and which perpetuates the shocking rise in racial attacks recently documented by the IRR.
Guardian (28 June 2010): ‘Theresa May: immigration cap will not harm UK economy’
Left Foot Forward (8 April 2010): ‘The Express is wrong: Half of all new jobs have gone to UK citizens’
Guardian (26 June 2010): ‘Non-EU immigration to the UK: the statistics’
Spectator (7 April 2010): ‘British jobs for British workers…’