I WROTE in these pages in April that the government needed urgently to reconsider their proposals for a post-Brexit immigration system. Even three months ago, some two weeks into lockdown, despite the clear evidence of impending danger Boris Johnson’s government seemed intent on ploughing on with their already seriously flawed visa regime; a regime cobbled together before there was any inkling of the crisis that is smashing the economy to smithereens.
The main surprise in the government’s ‘Further Details’ document put out last Monday was that there were no big surprises. They are sticking to a system drawn up before the Covid crisis was even imagined, without making any adjustments to it, as we head into the worst recession ever (Rishi Sunak’s words). Icarus-like, they fly on until crashing in flames.
Despite the crisis and the prospect of millions of British workers on the dole, the government are stumbling headlong towards unlimited work immigration. That will be the consequence of a Points Based System (PBS) requiring lower levels of both skills (from degree level to ‘A’ level) and salaries (down from £30,000 to £25,600) and an entry route for 18-25-year-olds at barely the minimum wage, job opportunities not advertised to the domestic labour market first and no cap on the number of permits to be issued. The global pool of young adults, educated to the required level, who will be available to employers will number in the hundreds of millions – yes, really. This is not ‘taking back control’: it is surrendering it to employers. A points-based system, Australian-type or not, without a cap on the overall number of permits to be granted is worse than pointless.
Such a system will encourage undercutting of wages and very likely lead to the displacement of UK workers. The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), whose advice the government have selectively followed, found in 2012 that 160,000 British workers had been displaced by immigration between 1995 and 2010 and that there was more risk of this happening during a downturn. Well, we are now going through the mother of all downturns.
The ‘Further Details’ document refers to the unnecessary, if predictable, NHS Visa. Perhaps for political reasons – ‘look at what we are doing in recognition of hard-working foreign NHS workers’ – instead of focusing on training and retaining many more of our own medical and healthcare staff, paying them more and improving their working conditions, the government are going for the overseas option. This goes entirely in the wrong direction and is damaging to opportunities for our own young people.
In 2015 the MAC pointed out that there had been ‘insufficient effort by employers to invest in British human capital’. They argued against nurses being on the shortage occupation list and included them in 2016 only on the understanding that this would be temporary. Jeremy Hunt, as Health Secretary, responded in 2017 by announcing:
A 25 per cent increase in training posts for nurses as part of a range of measures to:
· ensure the NHS meets current and future nursing workforce needs
· improve working conditions
· provide new routes into the profession.
Clearly, none of this has happened. As for the care sector, Mr Hunt wrote a few days ago in the Guardian:
Annual staff turnover is 30 per cent in social care, rising to more than 40 per cent in the home care sector. When ‘cost per minute’ is the basis for payments to home care staff, do we really expect our older people to be looked after with dignity and respect?
No wonder that there is such a high staff turnover in the care sector and that employers are keen to bring in people prepared, for a time, to put up with poor wages and poor conditions.
Let us also bear in mind that the new system will potentially draw in people from poorer countries which need workers at all skill levels much more than we do. All because we have failed miserably to train or retain enough of our own (young) people, by making them work in poor conditions and refusing to pay them what they deserve. Indeed, the MAC also found that migrant doctors and nurses were paid much less than British workers. This is also true of overseas workers in the IT sector.
Are we really going to put in place a system designed to all but encourage undercutting and displacement and likely lead to significant additional immigration, at a time of mass unemployment? Seriously?
In short, the new system for work migration should include:
· A cap;
· A higher salary threshold;
· No new entrant route (this allows 18-25-year-olds, with the equivalent of A-Levels, to come here to work at barely the minimum wage);
· A requirement that all jobs are offered to locals first.