With the new government looking to Australia for inspiration when it comes to devising a new immigration policy, Heather Rolfe writes that the exercise is nonetheless futile: a policy designed in a different country and for different purposes will not work. Instead, she explains what the UK public and employers want.
The government has had a few things on its mind and immigration has slipped down the ‘to do’ list. But just days into taking on their new roles, Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel have put it centre-stage again. Both have restated their support for an ‘Australian-style points-based system’, first made during the Leave campaign, and the Prime Minister has at last ditched the failed net migration target which dogged much of Theresa May’s tenure all the way from her Home Office days .
Immigration policy down under is coming out on top
Johnson and Patel are broadly on the same page on immigration: both support ‘economic’ migration and neither believe in giving priority to EU migrants. On taking office, Johnson announced his intention to ask the Migration Advisory Committee to look into an Australian-style points-based system and Patel has re-endorsed the approach. Neither are specific about what this would mean, other than that criteria would be based on skills and the ability to speak good English.
Where the Prime Minister and Home Secretary differ is on the question of numbers: Priti Patel has argued for an immigration cap to limit impacts on services and ‘restore public confidence in immigration policy’, while Johnson stated that he was not going to play the ‘numbers game’. How relaxed he is about net immigration levels is unclear but his stance potentially shifts the government from its impasse and could usher in more workable policies for employers.
What policies would score top points for employers?
Research carried out at NIESR, along with Gerwyn Davies at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, has found some very consistent messages from employers on their preferences for new immigration policy. An Australian-style system isn’t on their wish-list. Few are even aware of the highly restrictive proposals of the Immigration White Paper, which are in fact points-based. But what they want from new immigration policy is straightforward.
Employers fear the extension of the current red-tape involved in obtaining skilled visas to recruitment of all non-British workers. Those who are aware of the White Paper proposals are relieved that they are at least intended to limit bureaucracy through a ‘straightforward’ and ‘light touch’ system. This would enable fast processing times, though with a hefty price-tag of visa costs and skills and health surcharges.
On this at least, the Home Secretary agrees, pledging support for a system which allows for quick recruitment when employers experience shortages. She has also argued that job offers should be a condition of entry. This is, perhaps surprisingly, something that most employers would accept, having largely replaced, or supplemented, jobcentre plus and local adverts for online recruitment, word of mouth, and agencies.
So far so good, but it’s the emphasis on high skills which will concern employers – the essence of an ‘Australian-style’ system. In a recent Mail on Sunday piece, the Home Secretary announced that priority would be given to ‘those with the highest skills and the greatest talents – to attract those who add the most to our economy’. But when it comes to low skills, she argued that employers must ‘back our people’ and invest in training and technology rather than relying on foreign low skilled labour.
Yet in reality, employers in sectors such as hospitality, construction, agriculture, food and drink processing, and social care rely on migrant labour, not because they don’t train or invest in technology but because of shortages of British workers. This is particularly true of low wage industries, where 35% of employers cite shortages as the principal reason for recruiting migrants. And with unemployment at an all time low (3.8%) and employment at a (joint) record high at around 76%, it’s not hard to see the problem.
How then might ‘points’ be applied to select migrants for lower skilled work? EU migrants working in lower skilled sectors and occupations might score highly on age but low on qualifications and potential earnings. A different system needs to be set up for what currently accounts for a substantial proportion of EU migration to the UK.
How would these proposals score with the public?
In contrast to employers, the public finds the idea of an Australian points-based system attractive. They are familiar with the term, though not details of the policy, since they heard it so often from the Vote Leave campaign. Leave supporting participants in our post-referendum focus groups in Kent cited it, unprompted, as an example of good immigration policy in all but one of 12 sessions we held.
In contrast to free movement, Leave supporters saw the Australian system as selective, involving control and commitment, requiring migrants to contribute. The system was also understood to require migrants to leave if they are unable to find work. Importantly, Australia’s points system was seen to ‘control’ entry, particularly over the perceived ‘quality’ of migrants. And here was its appeal. In the context of the UK: a ‘high-quality’ migrant was typically characterised as one that (a) comes to work, (b) is a net contributor to the public purse, and (c) doesn’t commit crimes or come to claim benefits.
Importantly, if policy is to take account of public preferences, ‘quality’ was not identified with skill level. Our participants readily acknowledged that low-skilled migrants play an important role, including by meeting labour shortages in sectors such as social care, food and drink, and in performing jobs considered too unattractive by British people. The public isn’t asking for a new system just for the ‘brightest and best’.
It’s time to stop playing games
The Prime Minister has said he is not interested in the ‘numbers’ game played out by David Cameron and Theresa May through the net migration target. The government is more likely to gain public support for its new policies if these reject migration targets and caps, and if the government talks instead about contribution. Whether it can gain the support of employers depends on whether the new policy allows them to recruit unskilled as well as highly skilled workers, and the costs of doing so.
As far as adopting an Australian-style system, it’s a futile game to ask the Migration Advisory Committee to look into a policy designed in a very different country and for different purposes. There’s plenty of evidence from within the UK about what policies would work for employers, the economy and for the public. It’s time the government ended the waiting game, listened to employers and the public, and hastened the development of workable policies to enable employers to plan a viable post-Brexit future.
About the Author
Heather Rolfe leads the Social Policy team at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Number 10 via a BY-NC-ND licence.