Image: Just a few of the Daily Express's anti-migrant front pages
Veterans of the migration debate know better than to predict the future. But following years of continued growth, it seems like immigration to the UK may have finally peaked. This slowdown, alongside the outcome of the EU referendum, has influenced the tone of the debate. According to the polling, migration has fallen down the public’s list of concerns. And politicians seem to have taken note.
The Government has been taking tentative steps towards a more rational approach towards international students, highly skilled migrants and EU workers. Today, for example, immigration minister Brandon Lewis announced that the government would streamline the application process for EU migrants to achieve 'settled status', from a controversial 85-page form to a short online process - something the IPPR called for back in March. And in general, rather than deferring to the whims of the right-wing press, the approach now seems to be to let the Migration Advisory Committee, a panel of independent experts, arbitrate.
We should take full advantage of this possibly brief period of calm. Following years of tabloid-driven crisis management, here is an opportunity to take stock and set out what the country aims to achieve through its immigration policy.
So what should be the aims? As underlined by IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice, the UK economy faces big challenges – from stagnant wage and productivity growth, to widening regional inequality and trade imbalances. Our call is for migration policy to be designed not in isolation but with the explicit aim of taking on these problems. In our report, we set out how to do this.
Take widening regional inequality. At present, migration flows reflect the disparities which divide the UK – skilled migrants concentrate disproportionately in the parts of the country where there are the most jobs and opportunities. Our analysis shows that new migration is effectively zero in many parts of the UK today.
Rather than address this challenge, current policy decisions are exacerbating these inequalities. The wage thresholds used to determine whether migrants qualify for skilled visas reflect London salaries. So parts of the country where wages are lower find it harder to compete. Reversing this would be relatively simple: thresholds for areas outside the capital and the South East could be set at a lower level creating an incentive for international talent to flow in that direction. This more level playing field is essential for parts of the UK which are increasing held back by population decline and skills shortages, such as Scotland and the North East.
Smarter immigration policies could also be part of the solution to the UK’s productivity puzzle. On the one hand, the current system of work permits could be actively used to incentivise employers to invest in improving the skills and working conditions of UK workers. Employers who can demonstrate that they offer good terms and invest in training could earn the status of Trusted Sponsors. In return they would benefit from a series of perks, such as more flexibility, less bureaucracy and smaller fees. And the immigration system could work much harder to ensure that the UK remains a destination of choice for international talent – from engineers and programmers to world class architects and designers. In the wake of Brexit, attracting these people is going to take more work than before. The UK should launch a Global Talent Visa to ensure it can still compete.
Until now, the UK has failed to translate growing migration flows into stronger trading links. At present Germany has a better trade balance with India than the UK, despite the fact that its sub-continental diaspora is comparatively tiny. This is despite the evidence that migrants are a powerful asset when it comes to opening new markets, particularly in services. Their skills and networks help lower the social, linguistic and cultural barriers which can act as a stronger inhibitor than tariffs and customs. Pilots suggest that programmes which actively engage migrants currently in the UK could boost trade with key emerging countries.
For too long the migration debate has taken place at fever pitch. Bad policy decisions have ensued. It’s time for a fresh start.