Regional needs differ, so let’s have variable immigration rules

Can policy keep pace with London’s growth? Anthony Devlin/PA

The UK’s regional economic differences are huge. London is booming again while many other areas are still stuck in recession. There are demographic differences too: London’s population is younger than the rest of the country’s, and growing faster.

These disparities are reflected in differing immigration needs: Norfolk wants seasonal farm workers, Aberdeen needs skilled oil engineers. London wants whoever it can get. In fact, Tony Travers of the LSE has recently argued that London’s success means it should receive special treatment with regard to immigration.

Few economists or businessmen would disagree that having a growing pool of skilled workers is critical for sustained economic growth. It is clear that the government’s desire to reduce net-migration in the UK and keep out foreign workers could seriously damage the economic dynamism of high growth regions such as London.

However, Travers concludes that without becoming a bordered city-state London could not have its “own” immigration policy. I do not agree.

Oh, Canada

In Canada, a country with no borders between its various provinces, immigration policy reflects regional differences in labour market needs.

All the ten provinces (and one of its three territories) have agreements with the federal (Ottawa) government relating to immigration which takes into consideration specific provincial requirements. Each province has its own negotiated agreement with the federal government that essentially means responsibility for immigration is shared between the two.

In practice these programmes mean that applicants with certain skills face a lower immigration threshold if they agree to live, work and stay in a particular province or territory for a minimum period of time. This minimum is often 1,095 days, which is also what is needed to be eligible for Canadian citizenship. Once citizenship is obtained (or the minimum period expires), the individual can reside anywhere in Canada.

One of the main reasons this policy was introduced was to counter the historical tendency of immigrants to concentrate in the three main cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, much as immigrants to the UK tend to concentrate in London.

The policy is based on the fact that after two years of residence in one province, the probability of an immigrant moving to another province drops off considerably. In other words, if migrants move to a particular region in the first place, it is more likely that they will stay for the long-term.

In Canada’s French-speaking province, Quebec, the agreement with the federal government goes one step further, essentially devolving responsibility for immigration to the province. Potential immigrants apply directly to the regional government. Quebec’s system is similar to the rest of Canada’s but potential migrants are weighted differently, with less emphasis on education or qualifications and more on knowledge of the French language. Quebec “picks” the immigrants and the federal government issues the visas and work permits, and administers the medical and criminal background checks.

Would it work in the UK?

In principle, the UK’s points-based system could easily be modified along these lines to meet regional needs. A “one size fits” all immigration policy is not appropriate because of demographic diversity across regions.

The simplest modification would be allot more points to applicants who agree to live, work and stay in a particular region. Immigrants who choose this option could be issued with a visa that states that they are only allowed to work in this region. To emulate the Canadian policy, the period of this permit could be set to match the same amount of time needed to apply for citizenship.

Of course, this simple modification will only work if the government was willing and able to enforce the terms of the residence requirement. Those who failed to abide by it would have their work permits revoked. Since a “deal is a deal”, the government would have to be prepared, as a last resort, to deport those who failed to live up to the agreement.