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Two cheers for the government’s immigration plans

New measures are a step in the right direction but do not go far enough

Artillery Row

Languishing in the polls and anticipating an electoral drubbing, the Conservatives have gone back to the classics by announcing new restrictions on immigration. Is it all for show, though?

Sceptics might point out that the government has been promising net immigration in the tens of thousands for over a decade, but it has instead presided over an even greater opening of the borders than New Labour did — culminating in such a loosening of the rules under Boris Johnson that last year 1.2 million people came here.

Nonetheless, the new rules are largely to be welcomed. In brief, they include stopping most students and care workers from bringing dependents here; increasing the minimum income for skilled workers from £26,000 to £38,700; increasing the income necessary to bring over family to a similar level; ending the Shortage Occupation List, which let workers come here to work for even less than £26,000; and increasing the surcharge to access the NHS.

The majority of the immigrants who came last year would still have been eligible to do so

A government document estimated that these measures would have meant that 300,000 of the 1.2 million who came here last year wouldn’t have been able to do so if these rules had been in place. However, that still means gross immigration of 900,000 and net of 370,000.

Most of the 300,000 who would have been barred would be dependents — 260,000 of them. More Nigerian dependents came here last year than the students they supposedly were the dependents of, suggesting that they were gaming the immigration system to move from a poor country to our richer one. Ending that is undoubtedly a good move.

However, that means that the majority of the immigrants who came last year would still have been eligible to do so. That includes over 400,000 students, a huge increase on prior years. Increasingly those students come from India and Nigeria, looking to use the automatic work visa students now get upon graduation. Large numbers are on one year masters degrees, often in vague subjects like business and offered by unremarkable provincial universities.

Whilst defenders suggest that this shows the world-leading nature of our universities, a rather more likely explanation is that it’s a form of international arbitrage. A one-year degree can cost as little as £8,000, and it gives them the ability to work for three years. In many cases they will be operating in the grey or black economy, maximising how much they can make during their time here and minimising how much benefit the taxpayer gets.

Universities have every incentive not to look too closely, letting them collect rich fees whilst shifting the negative externalities to the taxpayer. That doesn’t just mean crime but also the huge burden on our infrastructure, which is straining under the load. To deal with all of these people we need new reservoirs, houses, GPs surgeries, roads and more — very little of which is actually being built.

Despite the fuss over increasing the minimum income for skilled workers or family, estimates by the government suggest it’ll only affect a few tens of thousands. It’s also unlikely that the family income rule will stand, as prior attempts to increase the spousal visa age from 18 to 21 were defeated in the courts under human rights law.

As for workers, of the 1.2 million arrivals, only 335,447 came on work visas, with almost half of them to work in the social care sector or other low paid jobs like healthcare, both of which aren’t included in the new minimum income increase. The Migration Observatory estimates that 70 per cent of the 208,000 Skilled Worker visas last year are thus exempt, whilst the other 30 per cent are often in jobs which meet the increased minimum income level anyway.

Almost all discounts on the income threshold should be abolished

Even amongst those who might be impacted by the new rules, there is the possibility of further carve outs: students and those under 26 already benefit from rules allowing them to be paid up to 20 per cent less, which might be retained. Similarly, although the Shortage Occupation List is set to go, as the Migration Advisory Committee have previously advised the government to do so, replacing it with an Immigration Salary List which retains an income discount means the undercutting of wages of British workers will continue.

All this is despite the fact that the increased threshold of £38,700 is about the level needed for the Treasury to get more in tax than it dishes out. Every low paid immigrant is therefore only a sticking plaster. If they choose to stay, as they often can, they will cost the taxpayer more in the long run.

Whilst the neoliberal wing of the right, such as City AM, might grumble that immigration is “good for growth”, the reality is that Britain is largely importing people who (officially) don’t work and who usually work in low skill jobs. That might partly explain why the unprecedented growth in immigration since 1997 has coincided with economic growth grinding to a halt.

That means that around two-thirds of all arrivals last year aren’t affected by the new rules. The government may hope that this will naturally sort itself out. After all, we’ve had large influxes of legal immigrants from Ukraine, Hong Kong and Afghanistan. Those numbers should’ve peaked and will decline. Most students leave, too, with the Migration Observatory saying 83 per cent did so within five years of arriving.

There is the danger that the government is opening up new immigration flows, however. The Teacher Visa was introduced earlier this year, and it will let workers come here for as little as £24,372. The Department of Education has already dropped EEA standards and will now accept teaching qualifications from countries like Jamaica and India. As of October this year, over 10,000 teachers from Ghana alone have applied for this visa.

Whilst these restrictions are a step in the right direction, they don’t even ameliorate the huge loosening of the rules which took place in 2021, let alone get the government close to its supposed target of tens of thousands. Many voters, whilst agreeing with this move, will remain disillusioned by the scale of immigration.

Continuing to import huge numbers of new immigrants will only compound our economic woes, even if it technically increases GDP. If you live in a flatshare and keep adding new flatmates then the flat’s combined income increases, even if nobody there gets any richer and the whole flat gets more crowded.

The government should be bolder. The Health and Care visa should be abolished. It will cost money to raise wages to attract British carers, but in the long term it will be cheaper. Students should lose the right to work after graduation; if they are genuinely talented, then they will be able to transfer their visa to a Skilled Work one anyway. Almost all discounts on the income threshold should be abolished too, as they encourage underpaying rather than the capital investment we really need. An annual visa cap, voted upon by Parliament, would also ensure a democratically accountable way to manage immigration.

Immigration can be good for Britain — but the current model isn’t working, and the repeated failure to keep promises to the British people is undermining democratic trust. With these new rules, the government has made a good start on fixing the problem. It must go much further though if it is to actually resolve it or to win back the faith of the voters it needs.

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