The publication of the British government’s white paper for a post-Brexit immigration system is long overdue. But coming so late in the day, with such uncertainty continuing about what Brexit will look like, much of what’s being proposed feels quite surreal.
The UK’s immigration system is currently a malfunctioning mess. It’s overly complicated, opaque and weighed down with political and social expectations that cannot be met. It’s been consistently castigated by senior legal figures for being so labyrinthine that even immigration lawyers have difficulty navigating it. It’s expensive, intrusive, and places unreasonable burdens on citizens, including landlords, health service workers and lecturers, to act as if they were employed as border guards. The current system can also end up unfairly discriminating by ethnicity.
Many of these shortcomings are acknowledged in the Home Office’s white paper, and the potential clarity the eventual publication of this document brings to the debate on the UK’s future immigration policy is welcome.
In the immediate aftermath of the white paper’s publication, much was made of the absence of a numerical target for net migration. But this is a red herring. The target has been politically dead in the water since before the 2016 referendum.
Devil in the detail
There are other, rather more fundamental changes in the government’s new plans for both migrants and employers. The resident labour market test will be scrapped, meaning employers can recruit directly from outside the UK without having to advertise in the UK first. Migrants on “skilled-employment” visas will also be able to stay for five years, and bring dependants with them. A system of new temporary visas will be created that are not tied to a single employer, enabling migrants to move between employers in precarious and flexible sectors of the labour market. At the same time, these temporary migrants will be prevented from renewing their status or continuing their employment even if they and their employers would prefer it.
What happens to these proposals as they are consulted on, translated into legislation, and then into guidance and Home Office practices will be key.
In UK immigration policy, the devil is always in the detail. Restrictions often become clear in the non-legislative detail of immigration paperwork and key questions must await those technical documents. How high will the health service fee be for migrants on temporary visas? What will the level of the “skills charge” be to employers? What checks on prospective qualifications of employees will employers have to make in order to employ someone on a skilled visa?
Nonetheless, the policy outlined in the new white paper has three striking characteristics that shed light on its overall weaknesses. It is in turns, rather surreal, cynical and in places, potentially quite sinister.
Problems with an earnings threshold
There is much weight given within the white paper to the settlement scheme for EU citizens currently living in the UK that will be in place until the end of the Brexit “implementation period” in December 2020. Yet without parliament’s approval of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, which includes a reciprocal arrangement with the EU on the rights of citizens, the political basis for that scheme is void. That means the proposals in the white paper might be dead by March if there is a no-deal Brexit – at least as far as EU citizens are concerned.
Much is made in the white paper of the “skills” basis for the new immigration system. Yet the skilled employment route has two problems. First, it’s likely such a route will be tied to an earnings threshold. The government will consult on a proposal, made by the independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) in September, to set that threshold at £30,000 a year, just above median earnings. This is politically contentious as there are many skilled workers who earn well below this. Second, it treats “skilled employment” as if this is an objectively measurable attribute – it isn’t.
The policy proposals are also pretty cynical. The MAC report found little evidence of large effects of migration on employment and wages. Yet it explicitly made reference to such pressures when it proposed keeping the £30,000 per year earnings threshold for skilled employment, arguing that such a high level might encourage employers to pay their skilled workers – librarians, care workers, physiotherapists, teachers – more. For the same reason, it opposed lowering the income threshold for public sector workers, on the grounds that upward pressure on their wages would be a good thing.
Yet, under current public expenditure levels, skilled public sector workers will not have wage increases to match these requirements. In the face of employer complaints, the government has explicitly invited employers to discuss the rate at which the threshold will be set in a year-long consultation. It’s likely the threshold will go down, directly undermining the MAC’s rationale for having it at all, and continuing to endorse the UK’s low-wage economy. Meanwhile, the gender pay gap, and the differential treatment of skills in typically male and female employment, means that women migrants are less likely to meet whichever threshold is set.
One of the rather understated, but politically telling, elements of the Home Office’s plans is that they permit two possible divergences from the new employment visa regimes they are proposing. First, new trade agreements after Brexit may open new routes for migrants from preferred countries and the UK will trade access to its labour market for those willing to do a deal. Yet it’s unclear how this constitutes “taking back control”, being open, or having a skills-led immigration policy.
The second, is that immigration policy may diverge in future if more immigration routes are closed on the basis of “risk”. “Low-risk nationalities” and “low-risk countries” will have access to the UK. Migrants – however skilled – that do not conform to this “risk” assessment are always vulnerable to exclusion. “Risks” can be defined in many ways and give governments wide powers to select which countries the skilled migrants may come from. And the government is specifically proposing to automate such assessments. This opens the possibility for a return to the outright discriminatory and racist immigration policy of the past.
Overall, the timing of the white paper’s publication is surreal, it presents proposals that rather cynically reproduce existing inequalities in the UK’s precarious labour market and its casts a rather sinister light on how the government thinks about selecting “immigrants” after Brexit.