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London First Chief Executive: We must welcome migrants to the UK if we want an economic recovery

In a new opinion piece,  London First Chief Executive, Jo Valentine sets out why we must welcome migrants to the UK if we want to see economic recovery in the UK

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So now a parliamentary committee has told the government what businesses have been saying for years. The Public Administration Committee’s dismissal of official migration statistics as “little better than a best guess” has highlighted one of the fundamental flaws in the government’s migration policies, namely that they are being made without any reference to accurate figures on the number of migrants in the UK. Put simply, we count them in but we don’t count them out.

Given that, there is probably no political topic that generates more heat and less light than immigration, the consequences of this are worrying.  No business would make major decisions without hard data.  Yet the government is happy to do so without, it seems, any regard to the impact its policies may have, not just on individuals but also on the services and businesses that rely on skilled migrants.

And there’s the rub.  This country needs skilled migrants. Without them the UK economy would collapse.  We need them to supplement our own workforce, we need those that have skills not found among the UK workforce, and we need those  that come to the UK to start businesses and create jobs and growth.

On the other hand, we all know that not every migrant is going to add value to our country and some overstay their welcome.  So we need a balanced policy, welcoming those who have a legitimate reason to be here, who are highly-skilled and who can contribute to our nation, but deterring those who have no reason to be here.

Unfortunately, this is where the government has painted itself in to a corner. It has committed to reducing net migration but is unable to control migration from within the European Union. So it has focused on migration from outside the EU, not on the grounds that this group of migrants adds less value but simply because it is an easy target.

Certainly that is the message being heard by prospective higher education students in countries such as India, where there is a strong perception that the UK is not a welcoming place. This is a very different message to the one promoted by Australia and the United States, both of which are aggressively marketing themselves to international students who want to study in English-speaking countries. We are losing out to these international competitors.

The government has worsened the situation by its illogical decision to treat visiting students as if they were permanent migrants and try to limit their number. The root of this is a fear that students will stay here indefinitely on completion of their courses and steal jobs. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is baseless, but, once again, the policy itself is being made in the dark.

We ignore this issue at our peril.  Higher education is our eighth biggest export, contributing some £8 billion to the UK economy annually.  The global market in international post-graduate education is lucrative and growing, but in the UK overall growth in international post-graduate numbers has stagnated.

For businesses, the picture is a little rosier. To give it credit, the government has taken a pragmatic approach to businesses that want to bring their staff from overseas offices to the UK or need to recruit from abroad for posts that simply can’t be filled by British workers – because they require specific knowledge or language skills, for example.  Provided they meet the strict criteria, it allows transfers within international companies and up to 20,700 additional highly skilled people to enter the UK each year.  At the moment, that ceiling hasn’t been reached but there is a risk that when the economy picks up and businesses need to recruit quickly, the quota will be very quickly used up.

Linked to this of course is a separate debate about how we improve skills in the UK workforce and how to get our education system more aligned to the employment market.  But for that debate to have a shred of coherence, we must understand the extent to which skill shortages can genuinely be met by the indigenous workforce and in what time frame we can grow our own skills. And even then, talent from overseas will still be valuable for the cultural insights it can bring and in order to make sure that the UK remains globally competitive.  Likewise, a coherent debate on migration requires the government to have access to accurate and up to date information about who has entered the country and, crucially, who has left. This means a full implementation of the e-Borders system – an electronic system to record entry and exit at our borders.  However, this is currently bogged down in technical delays and not likely to be introduced until 2015 at the earliest.

There are no easy answers to public concern over migration and its impact on society, but continuing confusion and mixed messages over policy are bad for business and bad for Britain. We need rational evidence-based policy-making – and for that we need to start with credible data.

 

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