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20 Sep 2018

Policies

The government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has just published its long-awaited report. At over 100 pages long, this is indeed the most comprehensive account of the impacts and drivers of immigration to the UK ever. It argues, as do many economists, that migration into the UK is beneficial for our economy, and migrant labour exerts only a tiny downward pressure on wages.

The report rightly states that the UK’s approach to immigration needs to put our wider economic goals at its heart. As argued previously by the Institute of Public Policy Research, the current system is doing little to address the structural weaknesses in our economy.

But what the report possesses in detail and scope it lacks in radicalism.

Part of the reason is that the report has been produced in the context of the Brexit negotiations and on the basis that the UK and the EU will not negotiate a deal on migration. But there is also a more fundamental problem: rather than break from the status quo, the MAC’s recommendations follow the parameters of the current tier system, whereby immigration rules for non-EU migrants are determined primarily by pay scales. Other than a handful of exceptions, only people earning more than £30,000 are eligible for Tier 2 visas (this includes those in professions which the MAC itself identifies as shortage occupations – such as engineers and chefs). According to this logic, the value of a worker coming from abroad is to be judged according to the size of their pay packet.

While it is indeed absurd for the UK to make it hard for the talented and highly-skilled to come to the UK, simply opening up our doors to programmers and bankers from abroad won’t result in the kind of radical change which IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice called for two weeks ago.

Instead, a truly radical rethink of the immigration system would require us to shift the focus away from the migrants who are coming here, and to the employers who hire them.

Good employers who live up to their obligations to their employees (paying the living wage, offering training and apprenticeships, providing flexible work for parents and carers) should expect to be at the front of the queue. Indeed, whether they employ PhD graduates or strawberry pickers could be irrelevant in a system like this.

Meanwhile, employers who shirk these obligations should be put at the back of queue – whether they are farmers or Facebook. They should pay higher fees, have to deal with more checks and bureaucracy, and be liable to bigger levies. Polling released earlier this week shows that it is this kind of radical shift that the British public expects after Brexit.

It is to be welcomed that the government is looking to inject much needed empiricism into the debate on immigration. Sadly, it looks like the opportunity for a once-in-a-lifetime rethink of the immigration system could be missed.

Phoebe Griffith is an Associate Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, working on migration, integration and communities.

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