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Artillery Row

The big Tory lie

They promised high-skill immigration. We got something else entirely

In 2019, as he prepared for power, Boris Johnson promised the British people he would introduce an Australian-style immigration system that would, in his words, bring “the best and the brightest” to Britain.

This new, highly-skilled, highly-selective, and highly-paid immigration would turbo-charge Britain’s economic growth. It would flood the country with net contributors, people who paid in more than they took out. And it would bring the very best global talent into the country, improving schools, universities, hospitals and more.

“We will restore democratic control of immigration policy after we leave the EU”, Johnson confidently proclaimed. “We must be much more open to high-skilled immigration, such as scientists, but we must also assure the public we have control over the number of unskilled immigrants coming into the country”.

This promise — that Brexit Britain would be completely reshaped around highly-skilled, highly-selective, and highly-controlled immigration— has been repeated by countless Tories ever since and still guides Spectator-style Toryism today.

The only problem, as new data makes clear, is that it was a lie. A big, fat, barefaced Tory lie. The country, the British people, got no such thing.

Contrary to what Boris Johnson and then Liz Truss and then Rishi Sunak promised, Britain has not been transformed into an oasis of highly-skilled scientists and big tech entrepreneurs who are contributing more than they are taking.

Far from it.

Under the Tories, Britain has become even more a country of mass, uncontrolled, and unassimilated immigration —much of which is not high-skill or selective at all.

The blunt reality, as the always insightful Neil O’Brien has just pointed out, is that if you look at the very latest data on what is happening you’ll find a completely different story to the one many of his fellow Tories have been peddling since Brexit.

Consider just one of many mind-boggling statistics.

Over the last five years, about two million people from outside Europe arrived in Britain through net migration. But how many do you think came for work?

Just 15 per cent. That’s right. 15 per cent.

The rest entered Britain as the relatives of workers, international students, the relatives of these students, or as asylum-seekers and refugees.

But surely those workers have gone into the most highly-skilled, highly-paid jobs where they are earning more than their British counterparts, right?

Nope. Based on what limited data there is, we now know this is not the case at all.

Many of the rapidly rising number of immigrants who are coming to Britain from outside of Europe actually earn less than established British workers —including those who have been here for the best part of a decade.

Put simply, there is little evidence the Tories have rebuilt the immigration system around the most highly-skilled, highly-talented, highly-paid global talent.

Furthermore, this promise, that Britain’s new immigration policy would be based around the very best and brightest has also been completely blown apart by two other things Boris Johnson and the Tories have introduced.

The first — as O’Brien points out — was the reintroduction of something called the two-year post-study work visa, which was another major blunder by Boris Johnson who was always far more liberal than his supporters and critics thought.

The visa, reintroduced by Johnson against the advice of immigration specialists, not only allows international students to work while they are studying at British universities but to work after their study has finished and —get this— at any salary threshold, at any skill level, and to then stay without any sponsor. As O’Brien notes:

As well as allowing people to work while they are students, the graduate route enables them to work afterwards at any salary threshold, any skill level, and stay in the UK to look for work without any sponsor. In other words, it allows holders to circumvent all the salary and other requirements of normal work visa routes, which are supposedly there to make migration a bit more selective and, thus, more beneficial.

Highly-skilled, highly-selective, highly-controlled, high-wage immigration this is most definitely not. It is merely another example of how Boris Johnson and the Tories have, contrary to what they promised, completely liberalised immigration.

This is why the number of international students coming to Britain since Brexit has rocketed — along with the record number of their (typically adult) relatives, most of whom do not work or, if they do, tend to work in the low-wage “Deliveroo economy” and so therefore do not make a net contribution.

It is just more of the same low-skill, low-wage, non-selective immigration which helps big business keep profits high, consumption high, and labour costs low.

Consider just a couple of statistics.

In 2022, relatives of international students accounted for nearly 150,000 visas, which was one-quarter of all student visas issued.

And most are not coming from wealthy countries.

Between 2015 and 2022, the share of all student relatives coming to Britain from either India or Nigeria soared from just 11 per cent of the total to 73 per cent of the total  — meaning their number surged from just 1,500 to more than 100,000.

Once in Britain, both the students and their often unemployed relatives can then access public services like the National Health Service, policing, defence, and education — with each of their children in primary school costing around £5,000 a year and each of their children in secondary school costing around £6,000 a year.

There is also mounting evidence that, amid record levels of overall immigration, this is also driving up house prices and rents, especially in university towns, where young British kids often find themselves being priced out of the market.

Pro-immigration activists masquerading as impartial academics, think-tankers and journalists on social media will deny all this, of course. That’s because their view of international student migration is strongly influenced by what they see on campus at elite universities or what they experienced when they were at Oxford in the 1980s.

But the fashionable image of a hard-working, international PhD student from the United States or Canada studying at Oxbridge for between three and five years to become a world-leading scientist and then applying those skills in Britain while making a net contribution to the economy is simply not what is happening today.

Most of the international students who are coming to Britain today, along with their relatives, are coming from much poorer countries and regions of the world — such as India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, or elsewhere in Africa and southeast Asia.

And rather than studying at Oxbridge or the prestigious Russell Group institutions they are now far more likely to be studying at the much less prestigious, non-elite universities which have the lowest fees and lower than average entry tariffs.

Since 2018, the fastest growth of all has been among international students who are not studying PhDs at elite universities but short MA courses, typically shorter than eighteen months, at second or third-rate universities which are the least selective of all and are using international students and their higher fees to avoid going bust.

Furthermore, many of these international students simply dropout before they even finish the course while university academics like me come under pressure to not fail them because, put simply, we need the money to keep the lights on.

Either way, once enrolled the students and their relatives then have the right to work and remain in Britain long after their study is over, which many of them, especially the ones from poorer countries, tend to do.

The Tories might like to complain about the state of higher education and the need to reduce the number of universities but this insane immigration policy is running in completely the opposite direction, perpetuating not changing the status-quo.

And contrary to all the Tory talk about the British people needing to get ready for the highly-skilled, highly-paid scientists, when many of these international students enter work after university they typically earn less than their British counterparts.

Hence why the Migration Advisory Committee recently concluded that what limited data we have “suggests that the graduate route may not be attracting the global talent anticipated, with many students likely entering low-wage roles”.

What the Tories have created, then, is not a pathway for getting “the best of the best” into Britain but, rather, a massive Ponzi-scheme which international students and their relatives are using to enter Britain, to enter low-wage jobs, to then stay in the country over the long-term, and which non-elite universities are exploiting to try and conceal a very big and growing black hole in their university finances.

Is this the best Britain can do? Really? Or as Neil O’Brien asks: is fuelling the growth of less prestigious, less research-intensive universities really worth the cost of undermining efforts to create a more selective immigration system which actually benefits the British economy and, most importantly, the British people?

These are crucial questions. And they are not the only ones.

The second thing which completely blows apart the Tory promise to reshape Brexit Britain around highly-selective, highly-paid, and highly-skilled immigration is something else you might not have heard of — the Shortage Occupation List.

This allows people to come to Britain to take up jobs where their earnings will be lower than the salary threshold set for incoming skilled workers. And the largest number of people who come in on this route go into social care.

Last year, more than 142,000 entry visas were issued for the social care sector which accounted for nearly half of all “skilled worker” entry visas.

Most, once again, are migrants from outside Europe — typically Nigerians, Indians, and Zimbabweans, who now represent 14 per cent of all care workers in England.

And many bring their relatives with them. Between 2022 and 2023, remarkably, 174,000 dependants on health and care worker visas came to Britain.

This too is fuelling the growth of low-skill, low-wage immigration. Most migrants who go into social care are going into very low-wage work, where the average salary is about £21,000, well below the median wage.

This means, in other words, that close to half of all the“skilled worker visas” Britain is giving out go to people who are seriously low-paid and who also often find themselves working in a sector where abuse and slavery is rampant.

Rather than reform the social care system, rather than clean it up, rather than allow firms and local councils to pay higher wages to a professionalised care workforce, which includes a larger number of Brits, the Tories have once again chosen to not just maintain but actively worsen the already broken status-quo.

They’ve chosen to essentially guarantee an ongoing flood of low-skill, low-wage migrants into Britain who are once again net recipients rather than net contributors, taking more out of the system than they are putting in.

The end result, as O’Brien rightly notes, is not a highly-skilled immigration regime but yet another false economy which will only worsen over the longer-term — where the migrants coming in to do low-wage jobs will, in time, also become sick and old themselves and need care and support, much like those students and their relatives.

Or, as the Migration Advisory Committee, notes:

Therefore, all else equal, a migrant on the [Health and Care Worker] visa bringing dependants to the country is more likely to impose a net fiscal cost compared to a migrant bringing dependants on the [Skilled Worker] route. This is even more likely given that the median salary for those on the [Health and Care Worker] visa is approximately £22,800, whilst it is £42,200 on the [Skilled Worker] route. This demonstrates an important aspect of policy deliberation. It may seem that using the immigration system to recruit more care workers is almost costless to the government compared to addressing the underlying pay issue, but fiscal costs such as those imposed on the education system are generally ignored in such analysis.

And nor, by the way, is it an insignificant point that many of the migrants who are coming from outside Europe to work in social care struggle to speak English — like the workers who could not tell the daughter of a Dementia-sufferer how her mother died, something industry insiders warned would happen a decade ago.

The key point in all this, the key point that is reflected in both these decisions to prioritise cheap, short-term fixes over dealing with the actual problem, is that the Tories have been lying — they’ve been gaslighting the British people, promising them one thing while delivering something else altogether.

They promised “lower overall numbers” only to then watch net migration soar to levels that have simply never been seen before in British history.

They promised to “take back control” and restore Britain’s status as a self-governing sovereign nation only to then completely lose control of the country’s borders.

And now, as the latest data shows, we can see that while they promised to deliver a high-skill, high-wage, and highly-selective immigration policy that would attract “the best and the brightest” they have instead sold the country down the river.

They’ve further pushed open the floodgates to a new era of low-skill, low-wage immigration from outside Europe — the very kind of migration which, as others show, is a net fiscal cost rather than net benefit to the economy and welfare state.

They need to stop lying to the British people. The Tories need to level with the country and admit that what they have delivered since the vote for Brexit is the total opposite of what they promised.

Instead of reshaping Brexit Britain around a highly-selective, highly-skilled and highly-controlled immigration policy which delivers the best of the best, they’ve reshaped it around a policy which, put simply, is none of these things.

This is precisely why the British people are so frustrated and disillusioned with immigration and the way it is being managed. This is why they are so utterly fed-up with the elite consensus in Westminster, which essentially sees no problem with the broken status-quo and kicking the difficult decisions down the road. And this is why so many of them, desperately, urgently, want change.

The British people and the country deserve better than this. And it’s high time that somebody out there finally speaks up and gives it to them. They deserve the truth. And they deserve leaders who will give them nothing but the truth.

This post originally appeared on Matt Goodwin’s Substack

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