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Pandering to the far right on immigration will bring economic disaster

The government’s migration plans are a cruel mess that will harm British business – and they know it

Migrant workers from Romania harvest daffodils in Lincolnshire. The UK needs immigration but the Tories’ latest plans are based on appeasing the far right, not what is best for the country. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty

“Immigration is good for the British economy. In fact, it is great for the British economy.” There, I said it. Now all we need is for all the British politicians who know this to be true to stop lying that it is not.

Because lying to the misinformed, the ignorant and the just plain racist is leading to not just a political disaster but an economic one as well.

The political disaster is perfectly clear. In our mainstream, we now have a far right grouping of politicians and parties who seriously suggest banning all immigration, pushing boats back to France, placing a floating barrier in the Channel and actively encouraging the thugs who disgraced themselves at the Cenotaph. We have well-dressed, well-spoken politicians who pretend to believe that immigration is the reason you can’t see your GP, get a home or a pay rise, who mention grooming gangs at every opportunity and claim immigration is undermining “Britishness”. All I can say is good luck to these politicians. You can never appease the far right by giving it what it wants because ultimately, it wants your head on a stick too.

But with my economics hat on I can say that the government’s most recent attempt to appease the far right by reducing immigration is callous, uncaring and ignorant.

Home secretary James Cleverly has announced a massive increase in the wage you will need to earn in the UK before you can be considered for a visa. The pay level was £26,200 and is now £38,700. It’s far too high, and while there are a handful of exceptions, at a stroke the government has made it impossible for vast areas of the British economy to bring in skilled staff. An idea to end the 20% discount for work visas in areas with serious skills shortages, is another body blow.

Stephen Phipson, chief executive of Make UK, which represents manufacturing industry said: “The high cost of recruitment from overseas can already be prohibitive to many businesses who simply have no choice. (The) announcement of higher salary thresholds for skilled worker visas, hot on the heels of large increases in other fees and charges for hiring overseas workers this year, simply makes addressing immediate labour shortages even more difficult for manufacturers. It essentially makes the shortage occupation list, which is composed by an independent body, redundant, a situation business leaders find absurd.”

He added that even before the crackdown on migrant workers, “Unfilled vacancies are leaving firms with their hands tied behind their backs when it comes to winning and fulfilling orders.” There are currently 70,000 job vacancies in the manufacturing industry. It is as simple as that: the UK needs immigration and it is good for the economy.

Cleverly is just the latest Tory minister to try to reduce immigration and just like all the others, his policies are not based on what is best for Britain but what is best for the Tory party. The home secretary claims his clampdown will stop 300,000 people coming to the UK, yet almost every sector of the economy needs immigrants and the skills they bring.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of HospitalityUK, points out that the new higher wage limits for work visas will mean that around 95% of the 8,500 hospitality industry visas issued last year would fail to be issued this year. The industry is already struggling under the pressure of too few staff so this is just another nail in the coffin.

Of the exemptions from these rules, most are for the public sector not private companies. Over the last year, half of the 208,000 skilled work visas went to care staff and another 20% went to health and education workers. None are included in these new rules.  But there is a nasty sting in the tail for those who qualify. Many visas will no longer allow workers to bring family or dependants to the UK, (although NHS visas will). It is a cynical way of saying the door is still open to those who help run the care sector, while in effect slamming the door in their face.

The consequences for British citizens are even more cruel. Anyone who wants to bring their new foreign-born partner to the UK must also earn £38,700 a year. So don’t be poor and fall in love abroad, because this new minimum income level is higher than the wages earned by 70% of British people. Only the top 30% of earners will be able to afford to fall in love abroad, and most women are not high earners. Bad luck, Shirley Valentine.

If you are getting the impression that these reforms are a panicky short-term reaction to one year’s worse-than-expected immigration figures, then you are correct. The government should stop pandering to the far right and tell them instead that the economy desperately needs immigrants. But this is still a cakeist administration which wants to appear to be tough on immigration while knowing full well that large sectors of the economy depend on it.

The NHS and care sectors need foreign workers to stop falling over completely. With 50% of school leavers now going on to higher education, there are just not enough British people to do the jobs, and with an ageing population, there will be more and more jobs to fill.

UK universities will also be hit by the new rules. International students are already being put off by restrictions on their dependents coming here, while the ability of universities to attract foreign researchers will be stymied by the new pay levels. Not many university research jobs pay £38,700 and over.

Funnily enough, there is no problem recruiting foreign staff in the truly successful parts of the British economy, because these pay well. The endless foreign-born accountants, bankers, actuaries, and economists give the lie to these policies.

They are certainly not designed to open up jobs for British-born workers or to increase wages or living standards or to upskill the population.

They are designed to pander to those who think they are poor because of immigration, that they can’t get a better job because an immigrant has already taken it, who blame NHS waiting lists on all those young healthy immigrants. The truth is the UK needs immigration and always will. Yet here we are again with the Tory party appeasing the far right by abandoning responsible, evidence-led, economically sensible, policymaking. It won’t end well.

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