The direction of immigration policy is still to be decided.

BY SUNDER KATWALA,
Director, British Future

THE UK government’s long-awaited immigration white paper, published days before Christmas, aimed to set out the framework for a new post-Brexit immigration system. But the future direction of immigration policy is now a little less clear after its publication than it was before it; 2019 will be an important year for the key immigration policy debates that it leaves unresolved.

The white paper reflects an unresolved tug-ofwar between the home secretary Sajid Javid and prime minister Theresa May over immigration. They agree on ending free movement from the EU, but disagree about what should replace it and why.

For Javid, the central theme of the white paper is that Britain should welcome skills. Promoted to home secretary to sort out the Windrush scandal, Javid wants the government to see the “reset moment” of Brexit as an opportunity to rebuild public confidence in the contribution that immigration makes to Britain.

But the prime minister’s first thought about immigration remains what the government can do to cut it. Having failed in six years as home secretary to bring the numbers down to the levels pledged, new controls after Brexit offer a final chance to try to hit it, even though non-EU migration is well above the target on its own.

On skilled migration from outside the EU, Javid won the policy argument. The current quota on the number of skilled visas – 20,7000 a year, or fewer than 2,000 a month – is to be scrapped. It was that quota led to the bizarre spectacle of the government refusing visas to surgeons for the NHS, as the de facto salary threshold for a skilled work visa soared to £50,000.

A more liberal approach to post-study visas was little noticed. Graduates will be able to stay in the UK for six months, and for those with a PhD, this period is 12 months. A lower salary threshold – starting at £20,800 – will apply for recent graduates from UK universities, who can also apply for UK jobs on those special terms, after returning home, for up to two years after graduating.

But these policies risk remaining a well-kept secret. Neither the government nor its critics in the university sector doing much to challenge the widely-held misperception that a £30,000 salary threshold will apply to post-study visas too.

The government did not make a decision on whether the salary threshold for skilled visas will be the £30,000 recommended by the Migration Advisory Committee. Instead, it will consult for another 12 months on the threshold, and what happens in shortage occupations below it, reflecting widespread support within the Cabinet for a more flexible approach, particularly to avoid exacerbating a recruitment crisis in areas including social care and construction.

The government’s proposal for a 12-month temporary work visa for low and semi-skilled migration has been criticised from every conceivable angle. A constant turnover of temporary employees is of little interest to employers, outside agriculture, making productivity gains impossible.

Increased churn makes integration impossible too. So Javid’s aim of making integration more important in immigration policy risks remaining rhetorical – confined to symbolic measures like reviewing the citizenship test – if he can not move on from the prime minister’s preference for temporary migration, which has meant an active policy of discouraging settlement, citizenship and integration.

The public want to control low and semi-skilled migration, rather than to end it. The challenge is to devise a policy that meets the needs of the economy, and can secure the political and public consent required. Since the government’s policy risks doing neither, it created an opportunity to advance constructive alternatives that can meet this challenge better.

The white paper proposes to expand the role of the Migration Advisory Committee, with an annual migration report, to help inform the public debate. That was one proposal from the National Conversation on Immigration, which saw the Home Affairs Committee work with British Future and Hope Not Hate to show how engaging the public directly in the choices ahead can build a constructive consensus for immigration reforms, which can more successfully manage the pressures and so secure the gains of immigration. The government proposes to consult intensively with employers this year. It should ensure that is linked to direct and visible engagement with the public too.

This white paper leaves immigration policy still on the drawing board. It proposes a new immigration system for 2021 – but two and a half years are a long time in an era of unprecedented political volatility. The political dramas at Westminster – the Brexit crisis over the next three months, the transition to a new prime minister, and the timing of the next General Election – could all see the politics of immigration change course again. Seizing the opportunity of a reset moment on immigration will depend on increasing public voice and ownership of the choices that are made next.

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