The wisdom of the Coalition’s strict monthly cap on skilled immigration is the hottest topic for many of my commercial constituents. For multinational businesses, a liberal immigration policy is the litmus test for the proposition that the UK is ‘open for business’. Surely, my associates suggest, a cap is at odds with the government’s passionate commitment to economic growth.
The apparent softening of the government’s stance on the cap this week to reflect this widely-held sentiment has been subject to press criticism. Many on this website feel betrayed at the ease with which this apparently immovable pillar of May’s Coalition Agreement is being dismantled. However, I believe the Prime Minister should not feel overly hamstrung by his earlier pledge. We must think very carefully before we impose a permanent, artificial limit on those who seek to study or work here.
Nor, of course, should we ever accept blindly the undercutting of the indigenous workforce with cheap migrant labour. Few would support employers choosing an international worker over a similarly skilled Briton or welcoming with open arms each and every person who decides they would like to start a new life in the UK. However, flexibility in a country’s immigration system is now part and parcel of being a signed up member of the global economy. International businesses and business people, not to mention academics, expect to be able to move with relative ease between open, dynamic and flexible global cities, just as many mobile Britons would anticipate being able to work in Hong Kong, New York, Shanghai or Mumbai for a spell. Those countries which restrict this movement risk economic isolation in the age of globalisation.
The problem with the immigration debate is that it is stifled by a lack of candour. In truth, the movement of international business people and students is not the nub of the issue for most Britons. Instead, worries about immigration broadly stem from a sense of rapid change to our communities which no longer seems under control and for which there has never been an explicit mandate.
The demographics of many English towns (rather than just cities) have changed drastically, sometimes in the space of the last five to ten years. Often the size of a particular ethnic group or nationality in an area is such that integration is not seen as necessary by new arrivals. This brings with it perceived and real pressures on schools, housing, services, wages and local employment (and I do not mean simply unskilled jobs, but increasingly professions such as IT where skilled graduates from abroad are beginning to undercut young people fresh out of British universities).
All these are legitimate concerns to be tackled. They also explain why an overall cap on numbers has proved such a seductive notion. But this device, in its simplicity, betrays the realities of what is going on. What few politicians are willing to admit explicitly is that there are certain types of immigration that are desirable and others that are emphatically not (or which, at the very least, create anxieties that will not be addressed by the imposition of an arbitrary cap).
Let me explain. The most desirable group of immigrants into this country (highly skilled business people and academics from non-EU countries) represent the tide easiest to stem with a cap. Similarly, we could relatively easily slash the number of non-EU students coming here to study but I believe such a group should broadly be encouraged – they will keep our Higher Education sector afloat financially in these stringent times and many will return home as keen ambassadors for this country in the decades to come.
Amongst the other groups to come here are the many dependants, relatives and would-be relatives of previous immigrants. They often arrive with very few transferable skills and little understanding of English language and culture. When talking about such a group, all MPs have to declare a level of hypocrisy, especially those like me representing inner city seats. I am petitioned by constituents daily to make representations to the Home Office, particularly by members of the Bangladeshi and Kashmiri Pakistani communities, to assist in their applications to remain in Britain. It is difficult, often to the point of impossibility, not to make a case on behalf of an existing constituent in promoting family reunification.
We might also look to stem the number of those claiming asylum or indeed try to restrict the major immigration influx coming from the EU where there is free movement of labour. However, short of withdrawing from either the Geneva Convention or the European Union itself, it is impossibly difficult to reduce entrants from these two large groups. Any cap certainly would have no impact on the numbers coming here under these categories.
It is for these reasons that at the same time as we see October’s quota for highly skilled migrants already being filled, there are reports that the UK Border Agency is quietly giving the green light to tens of thousands of unresolved asylum claims simply to clear the backlog.
The dilemma of maintaining openness to desirable migrants and developing a tough approach to others, is not just one affecting Britain but developed nations across the world. I believe the time has come for countries facing these challenges to work together to find fresh solutions – perhaps by rethinking obligations arising from international treaties or, at an EU level, developing a transnational approach to stricter transitional arrangements for new member states and the provision of social security arrangements to migrant workers and their families.
Alongside promoting economic growth, we must find a way of ensuring businesses recognise or have a degree of responsibility for the wider, longer term costs of using migrant labour. The UK must be increasingly vigilant about student overstayers and come down hard on bogus educational institutions. We also need to be explicit: permission to work does not automatically lead to a right to stay.
In the meantime, we must get real. A cap on overall numbers is a political device to soothe. But we should not be fooled that it will solve. Just as with all areas in desperate need of fundamental reform, the potentially explosive issue of immigration needs to be handled with calmness, transparency and, most of all, honesty.