At long last, the Government has got round to telling us how it thinks the immigration system will work once we have left the EU.
Presented by Home Secretary Sajid Javid just a few days ago, a new White Paper has been promoted as a game-changer – a set of plans that will open up Britain for business while taking back much-needed control of our borders.
Sadly, the opposite is the case. Far from the big leap forward we have been promised, these proposals mark a further slide backwards into the migration chaos that is now a prime concern of British voters.
To be blunt, the Government has caved in to pressure from employers without regard for the interests of British workers, particularly those of our young people looking for decent careers.
The fact of the matter is that migration to Britain from countries outside the EU now makes up three-quarters of the total – yet for several years now Ministers have done nothing useful to clamp down on the loopholes and abuses in the system and they show little sign of doing so in future.
Those in power know very well that they are on thin ice. The sheer scale of immigration is a real and entirely legitimate concern to the public. The net annual figure peaked at a third of a million a couple of years ago. No wonder nearly two-thirds of the people of Great Britain think immigration has been too high over the past decade.
They have good reason for alarm. Since 2001, immigration has been adding one million to our population every three years.
They might not have the precise statistics to hand but ordinary members of the public are well aware that the roads and trains are getting ever more crowded.
Many are concerned about getting on to the housing ladder but they know that the demand arising from immigration is no help. Official housing projections show that if net migration to England were to continue at 210,000 a year, we would have to build about 90,000 homes a year – a new home every six minutes day and night.
To be fair to Theresa May, she has been determined to face down the Treasury and others who say that immigration is an undiluted good for our economy and has attempted to stick to the Conservative manifesto pledge of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands. Yet she has not had the Cabinet support she deserves.
Take Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary and the man in charge of border controls. He refused eight times on Radio 4’s Today programme to confirm the target – only to be publicly slapped down by the Prime Minister in Parliament that very day.
Does he seriously intend to reduce immigration? Do his colleagues? On the face of it, the Government White Paper seems sensible enough. The major change it proposes is that EU citizens and those from outside the EU will be treated in the same way from January 2021 when the proposed transition period (from EU membership to full Brexit) comes to an end.
The route for skilled workers will be widened and there will be a new ‘temporary’ route for low-skilled workers.
But the detail of these arrangements tells a very different story.
One problem is this: under huge pressure from industry, the Government has thrown open the doors to ‘skilled’ workers. And the definition of ‘skilled’ has been reduced from degree to A-Level or its equivalent – a change that will open millions of jobs in the UK to people worldwide who are looking for a better life.
It gets worse. The Government is proposing that there will no longer be any need for employers to advertise posts in the UK before rushing to recruit from overseas. In other words, anybody will be free to bring in a ‘skilled’ worker, provided that they claim they will pay them £30,000 a year or more.
And even that limit is under intense pressure from industry, apparently with the support of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond. There is now talk of a threshold of £21,000, which is hardly a hurdle at all, especially as it is very easy to manipulate salaries by including housing allowances and other expenses. Most worrying of all, there will be no cap on numbers. The plans get no better when it comes to low-skilled migration. It is proposed that visas will be limited to 12 months, after which the holder is supposed to return home for a one-year ‘cooling off’ period.
But how the Government expects to ensure that they leave on time is anyone’s guess. What we do know is that this is a blatant attempt to fiddle immigration statistics which have long been such an embarrassment to the Government.
Here is how it will work. When foreign travellers arrive at a port or airport, a sample will be asked whether they intend to stay for a year or more. If they say yes they are included as international migrants. But these people will say no and will not be included in the migration statistics. Amazingly, this route will also be uncapped.
What happens if they overstay? Nothing. The Government does not have the resources to locate them, let alone remove them.
Their capacity to remove immigration offenders and former prisoners is only about 9,000 a year, so the result will be that they add to the population of illegal immigrants that former senior Home Office officials have already estimated at more than a million.
None of this is about controlling immigration. It is quite the opposite – it is abdicating control.
It is not as if our existing EU workforce is departing in droves. In the last available year, 74,000 more EU citizens arrived than left. This is down from the peak of 190,000 a couple of years ago – a fall that may be due to uncertainty about the future, a drop in the value of the pound or a mini-boom in Poland – but there is no reason to expect a sudden exodus.
In any case, low-skilled and low-paid workers, while adding to total production, do not add to productivity per head, which is what really matters. Indeed, low-paid EU workers are subsidised by the Treasury with working-age benefits to the tune of £4.7 billion a year in 2015-16 – or nearly £13 million a day. This is serious money.
Meanwhile, a pool of low-wage migrants discourages employers from investing in the productivity of the existing workforce. Is this why apprenticeship training by British employers has fallen through the floor?
Then there is the persistent and growing problem of non-EU migration, which is now running at 250,000 a year, the highest for 14 years. This is a huge issue that must be tackled and which now requires a very different approach. For a start, the ‘skilled’ route must not be diluted. It must remain at degree level and the numbers must be capped.
There should also be a medium skilled route confined to, for example, plumbers and electricians, and limited to EU workers for a specific period of stay We do not believe that there should be any route for the unskilled aside from the occasional, very carefully controlled, scheme.
There is plenty more we could and should do. We should demand higher standards of English from spouses intending to come to Britain from abroad. We should interview foreign students before they arrive to ensure they are legitimate. We should tighten up border controls that mean we can never be entirely clear who has entered or who has left the country.
Meanwhile, there is a serious risk that the system now proposed could spin out of control.
The public have made their concerns very clear. If the Government continues to ride roughshod over them, they will pay a very high price, and will deserve to do so.