Immigration has long been a contentious issue within British politics, intrinsically linked with the UK’s membership of the European Union and our associated obligation to accept the “four freedoms.” These four freedoms including, of course, the ever-controversial ‘freedom of movement.’ Indeed, whilst a few out-of-touch pro-Brexit academics attempt to justify the Brexit vote with reference to abstract philosophy or little-known history, the reality is that immigration, however distasteful they may find it, was an intrinsic motive behind the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.
The public frustration with an open border was unambiguously capitalised upon by Vote Leave under the slogan ‘Take Back Control.’ This slogan, vague in nature, was often followed, particularly in the dialogue of the chief Brexiteers with ‘…of our borders’. This messaging appealed directly to a widespread unease surrounding the scale of EU immigration which had rapidly risen in the late nineties and early noughties.
Indeed, the reasons behind this unease were far-reaching and not, in the most part, racially motivated. In less privileged areas which suffer wage stagnation, the economic concerns over high levels of immigration are prevalent. Not just because, as it is often crudely put, that immigrants are ‘stealing all our jobs’, but the belief -rightly or wrongly- that high levels of immigration into low-wage sectors compress wages. Detractors of the EU often cite, often wrongly, that increased immigration is a strain on the public sector, linking it to longer GP waiting times and classroom sizes.
Given the centrality of this issue in the outcome of the Brexit vote, it is unsurprising that under Boris Johnson’s new administration, a relatively hard-line approach to post-Brexit migration policy is being put forward by Home Secretary Priti Patel.
In proposals met by a great deal of hostility both from within and outside of Tory ranks, Patel announced the government’s intention to introduce a salary cut-off for immigrants wanting to enter the UK. This would mean that most workers would need to be earning at least £25,600, as well as meeting a whole host of other criteria, in order to settle in the UK. This would, in effect, close the borders to workers categorised as ‘unskilled’ and instead reorient immigration towards skilled and educated migrants. Tory frontbenchers believe that by reducing the availability of cheap labour, it will encourage the currently unemployed or economically inactive workers residing in the UK to plug in the gaps in low pay sectors, currently filled by immigration.
The naïveté of this policy reflects the dominance of politics over economics in shaping the new, somewhat ironically dubbed, “Australian-style” points system. The dubious argument that the economically inactive will the gaps in our economy is ignorant of the fact that our economically inactive citizens are mostly students, careers or voluntarily unemployed individuals who do not claim any form of benefits. Thus, it seems alarmingly clear that a blanket ban on unskilled labour will result in shortages in agriculture, catering, and other low-pay sectors in the short to medium run.
This uncompromising approach towards the entry of unskilled workers is not the only problem with Patel’s announcement. The salary threshold will also bar social care and NHS support staff from entering the UK. Although the government provided some welcome reassurance in stating that under the new system, nurses will not be subject to the same arbitrary salary threshold and will instead have the option of the ‘NHS Visa’, it still remains wholly nonsensical to ignore the immense contributions made by support staff in the health and social care sectors. In a country with an ageing population and growing demands on health and social care, we should not be discouraging the entry of immigrants who can help support a floundering system.
Immigration controls are a political necessity, mandated in both the 2016 referendum and the recent election, however the introduction of arbitrary salary thresholds and skill categorisation is unwarranted. Whilst, indeed (to recite CCHQ slogans), we should be aiming to attract the ‘brightest and the best’ into the country, we cannot ignore the gaping holes in low-pay industries and the labour demands of both the public and private sector.
The government must instead orientate its policy towards satisfying the demands of the economy via a more flexible regime. Such a regime would account for ever-changing market conditions, whilst still maintaining the meritocratic principles of a points-based system. This would mark a great improvement from a free movement system, of which the UK has chosen to abandon.
Written by Lexie Hill- President-elect of UCL Conservatives.
The ideas represented in this article are not reflective of the values held by UCL Conservatives. The opinions expressed in this article are solely representative of the author.