Last week, the government announced its plans for a new immigration system to be introduced in 2021. There will now be a breakneck race to get the Home Office and UK labour market ready for this new system, which the government says will be in place in ten short months.
The all-party parliamentary group on migration, which I chair, is clear that future immigration policy must be evidence-based, compassionate, and protect people’s dignity and rights. It should promote our country’s wellbeing, security and prosperity, and serve the best interests of everyone in the UK. Of course, we acknowledge there are tensions and challenges to be resolved. That’s why we have spent the past three years in discussion with employers, migrants and the wider community, to help us think through the priorities and trade-offs that will be needed when freedom of movement ends at the start of next year.
We are pleased that there are areas where the Home Office has clearly listened to concerned MPs and experts. The lower salary threshold — the 2018 White Paper proposed £30,000 to qualify for a visa; the figure has now been reduced to £25,600 — is a welcome change, though it still means many workers in key sectors where we experience labour shortages won’t qualify under the new immigration rules. Arduous, ineffective labour market tests are gone. And the government proposes to bring back the two-year post work study visa, which lets international students at our universities stay on to find work after graduating. These are positive steps.
But it is dispiriting to see the government’s proposals too often reduce European citizens to commodities. We cannot see human lives purely as cheap labour, or a way for businesses to avert the next “cliff edge”. Sectors like social care and hospitality, where our European friends and neighbours already do so much essential work, show the best of human patience and kindness, yet the proposals treat people doing those jobs as mere economic units.
Such an approach is both unethical and unhelpful. Every one of us knows someone who has contributed hugely to the UK and yet, under this plan, would be dismissed as “unskilled”. People who care every day for older people, who serve in pubs and restaurants, or build the infrastructure we all rely on do not deserve to be designated by the wages on their pay slips alone.
The proposals will also put the most vulnerable workers at risk. Confusion over the legal rights of EU citizens in the UK could lead to an increase in unsafe work and cash-in-hand jobs. Meanwhile, the 12-month temporary visa, suggested in 2018, has been scrapped, meaning that businesses preparing for that change will be forced to go “cold turkey”, as a vital source of labour is switched off overnight. That not only harms the interests of employers, removes a safe pathway for migrant workers and reduces the incentive for employers to invest in and train them, it also damages integration and social cohesion, as we face a churn of young workers here for only a very short period, with no stake in the long-term future of our country’s success.
Finally, these plans are economically unworkable. Of course, we should invest in skills and training to give UK nationals every opportunity to take up paid work. But in a time of nearly full employment, where are the UK workers to be found to replace those who can no longer come here and those who decide to move on? Crucial sectors depend on migrant labour to help our public services to function and our economy to grow. Shutting down routes into the UK for some lower-paid workers over such a short time will put employers in an impossible position. Meanwhile, there’s no route for self-employed workers, vital to economically important sectors as diverse as construction and the creative industries, while reciprocal arrangements allowing self-employed British workers to work in the EU are also at risk.
What’s so disappointing about these proposals is that they seem to pander to some imagined overwhelming public hostility to migrants at exactly the time when attitudes among the general population are softening. That is why, as the expected Immigration Bill begins its parliamentary passage shortly, I hope that ministers will understand the concerns many of us have with the proposals and think again about the type of systems we want and the country we should be.