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A successful recovery hinges on a smart approach to immigration
5 August 2020
Last month the Home Secretary announced further details of the future immigration system, as the UK moves to a points-based approach, where some points for higher education are tradable for a lower salary threshold.
The new system will put all immigration from the EU and outside on the same footing, which means that UK employers can no longer hire any EU citizen as if they were a UK citizen.
The Government has listened to business and lowered some of the hurdles it initially proposed for migrants, including reducing education requirements (now equivalent to A‑level) and the minimum salary threshold (to £25,600, or £20,800 for government specified shortage occupations).
Both are hard-won victories from businesses trying to convince the Home Office of the realities in the labour market, but are still not enough to enable many sectors to access the skills they will need. Sectors that served as the backbone of the economy during the pandemic, such as health and social care, construction and the food industry, have been highly reliant on EU workers many of whom will not qualify as ‘skilled’ under the new rules.
The Government justifies this approach by arguing they want to move to a higher-skilled and higher-productivity economy. If business can’t hire from abroad, the argument runs, they will need to train and invest locally. A higher-skilled, higher-productivity economy is the right long-term goal, and British businesses are stepping up investments in training and development. But we also need to focus on recovering from the pandemic now: training and reskilling programmes take time; and people and new jobs are often in different places.
A short-term fix is to offer a temporary work route, with an unsponsored 2‑year visa for all skills levels with a minimum salary requirement of £20,800, in line with the shortage occupation list salary and 20% higher than the adult minimum wage. This would incentivise employers to seek out domestic labour where they can and, if there is a shortage, be able to hire if needed from abroad.
Immigration and skills policy need to be developed in lockstep, ensuring that the needs of the labour market are met. Closer cooperation between the Home Office, Business and Education departments is essential to ensure policy isn’t developed in silos and one department isn’t booting problems into the other’s backyard.
Chaotic times demands pragmatic thinking that looks at immediate and medium-term economic need. As we improve the skills of existing UK employees, there are talented and skilled people around the world who could help with the UK’s recovery.
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