Taking back control over Britain’s borders was one of the most powerful rallying cries deployed during the country’s referendum on EU membership. Now, as the UK prepares to leave the bloc, the government has a chance to demonstrate exactly what it wants to do with that control — and how UK prime minister Boris Johnson plans to meet his pledge to increase migration from “the brightest and the best” while ending freedom of movement.
A report from the Migration Advisory Committee, a government-sponsored expert panel, dealt a blow to the government’s original plans on Tuesday. It rejected the “Australian-style points-based system” that has been a slogan for the Conservative party, as well as the kind of “Global Talent” visa that Mr Johnson proposed this week. It also recommends lowering the salary threshold for migrants with a job offer to £25,600 from a mooted £30,000.
An existing visa for “exceptionally talented” individuals to move to the UK without a job offer attracts few applicants, the report says. Highly qualified research scientists, computer programmers and mathematicians do not usually switch countries without a job lined up and easily earn over the threshold for other schemes. The Global Talent visa risks being more of a gimmick than a serious method to attract highly skilled workers.
The points-based system promised in the Conservative manifesto may likewise work better as a slogan than a policy. In the UK’s current employer-sponsored scheme the points are purely cosmetic: applicants must meet every one of the criteria to qualify. There is no evidence the scheme is failing to recruit appropriate workers, the MAC concludes. Preferable to an Australian-style system, it says, would be a simple rule with a salary threshold.
Points-based systems may be appropriate for those with exceptional promise rather than at the top of their field. The report suggests encouraging applicants without a job offer to register their interest for a monthly draw; selection would be on the basis of points, assigned according to applicants’ qualifications, age and whether they have studied in the UK.
The Resolution Foundation think-tank says this combination would create a two-tier, “open and closed” labour market. The UK would be relatively open to international migrants seeking higher-paid, higher-skilled jobs, but lower-earning UK workers would face little competition from immigrants. The openness for highly skilled workers to come to the UK is to be welcomed. But many parts of the economy, especially construction, agriculture and healthcare, would struggle.
If such a scheme were implemented, pressures would increase in Britain’s creaking social care sector. Under the MAC proposals, nurses and teachers would face different salary thresholds based on the national pay scales already used by schools and hospitals. Social care work, however, where pay is often low, would not be excluded from the £25,600-a-year threshold. The solution, the report argues, is to improve conditions for social care workers and thus attract more interest. That would be welcome, though successive governments have struggled to find a long-term fix for social care.
Freedom of movement has served the UK economy well; ideally it would be preserved. Yet control of migration was a key factor in the Brexit vote. Within these political constraints, policy should aim to remain as open as possible: any future regime will need to balance the economic demands with the need to end the corrosive effects of immigration on politics. The MAC proposals are a sensible first step.