Wales has a lower immigrant population than almost any other region in the UK. Plaid Cymru’s manifesto adopts an unabashedly positive tone, much more focused on the benefits of immigration – referring to migrants as “world-class experts and those who can help run our public services” – compared to what we might expect from some of the other parties. Unsurprisingly, the need for immigration policy to recognise the specific needs of Wales is a central theme. Plaid wants to pursue immigration policies in accordance with the needs of the Welsh labour market, but such changes could be difficult to implement in the current context.
One size doesn’t fit all
Immigration rules are a form of labour market restriction that may match the needs of some regions better than others. For instance, restrictive policies based on a UK-wide assessment that there are no skill shortages may be ill-suited to the needs of regions where skills are in short supply – particularly if those regions find it difficult to attract skilled workers from within the country.
Assessments of skill shortages made by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) as a basis for decisions on visa policy can take into account submissions by regional bodies, but are not currently region-specific, except for the special consideration of Scotland. The Plaid Cymru manifesto proposes the creation of a Welsh Migration Service to assess Welsh skill needs and liaise with the MAC. It also contains a proposal, for example, that the Welsh government should be allowed to decide which companies can sponsor immigrant workers within Wales.
Students and spouses
It also goes further, proposing relaxation of the immigration policies specific to Wales. The case has been made for region-specific visas in the UK more generally, and this policy represents a step toward the idea of region-specific visas for Wales.
The manifesto proposes, for example, the reintroduction of the post-study work route specifically for students at Welsh universities. This would allow for overseas university students to remain within the country for a period after completing their studies. This route was was scrapped by the UK government in 2012, based on arguments that it was prone to abuse and facilitated entry too easily into unskilled work. But it can also be argued that scrapping this route was bad for national skill retention and bad for university student recruitment. For Plaid’s policy to work as intended, those granted the right to stay would need to be effectively constrained to the Welsh labour market.
The current UK government has also tightened entry rules for foreign spouses, requiring a minimum income in order, supposedly, to prevent immigrating spouses from becoming a fiscal burden. Some argue that the whole idea of restricting the right to live in the country with a foreign-born spouse by income is unjust. Since thresholds are set nationally, the policy is also arguably regionally discriminatory. The Plaid Cymru manifesto proposes a review.
An unfair advantage?
The only respect in which the manifesto suggests a tightening of policy is a strengthening of gangmaster licensing law – specific to agriculture and food processing – so as to “protect local workers” and prevent “unfair advantage” being gained through employment of migrants. There is evidence that immigrants tend to work at low wages, at least in years soon after arrival. Whatever small negative effects there are of this tend to be at that end of the wage distribution. The proposal here is rather vague though, in terms of what is meant by “unfair advantage”, and in how it would be policed.
The manifesto also raises issues of immigrant welfare. Specifically, it proposes that Wales become a “Country of Sanctuary” – an extension to the City of Sanctuary idea – declaring Wales to be a place of safety for those fleeing persecution. Particular mention is made of refugees from Syria and Iraq. Finally, there is also a commitment to pursue prevention of slavery which is surely unexceptionable.
The Conversation’s Manifesto Check deploys academic expertise to scrutinise the parties’ plans.