As we predicted, the debate has sharpened. The Illegal Migration Bill was passed by Parliament, having sustained multiple amendments and a final challenge by a concerned House of Lords. In the end the Government won the day with its tough stance, to the dismay of human rights groups, variously citing incompatibility with the UK’s long-established international obligations under the 1951 Geneva Convention and 1967 protocol, questionable definitions for “safe” countries, removal of modern slavery protections in the asylum arena and extended powers of detention with few appeal options.
All this against the backdrop of the Court of Appeal’s rejection by majority of the lawfulness of the Government’s flagship Rwanda policy as contrary to article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, based on the risk of mistreatment, leaving a key plank of the new legislation in the balance. The Government is confident of overturning this at the Supreme Court.
The Government’s own figures lay bare the sheer extent of net migration and loss of control since Brexit. Home Office statistics showing record annual net migration of 606,000. Their release coincided with a highly critical National Audit Office report on the asylum system. The still-fresh memory of 2019’s “taking back control of our borders” rhetoric (and manifesto pledge) collides with 2023’s reality: a surge in dangerous illegal small boat crossings, a lengthening asylum backlog and a stretched public purse blocking much needed investment in the immigration system. One commentator points out that the system is overwhelmed not so much by new arrivals as “mismanagement”.
Meanwhile the taxpayer picks up the cost of housing migrants who are barred from work and unable to contribute economically for years rather than the weeks their applications could take in a properly funded and managed system. At the end of the current process, few whose claims fail are actually removed.
Opposition claims that the UK’s “low-wage economy” has caused this loss of control are starting to stick. A Social Market Foundation Report in June concluded that immigration policy is fuelling rather than alleviating, skills shortages. Over-reliance on subsidised overseas labour to fill skills shortages is just the start of it; Keir Starmer proposes to “fix the apprenticeship levy, fill the skills gap and stop businesses from recruiting from abroad if they don’t pay properly.” Employers would no longer be allowed to pay overseas workers 20% less than the equivalent domestic wage for shortage occupations.
The labour market remains relatively tight. Skilled and unskilled migration are rising. There is nothing very new here. In a series of reactive moves, the Government has sought to dampen criticism, but the effects will mostly be limited:
- It’s the season – the short term, temporary Seasonal Worker visa route is being promoted this summer for “seasonal horticulture work or poultry production work” A person on the Seasonal Worker route can stay for a maximum period of six months in any 12-month period; no long term entitlements follow. This is of some help to a hard-hit sector following the loss of pre-Brexit free movement, but there is an overall quote and only endorsed scheme operators approved by DEFRA and licensed to operate with seasonal visas can use it. It is very popular with displaced Ukrainian nationals.
- Investor visas - The Supreme Court upheld the Government’s appeal in the case of Wang against an earlier finding, and ruled that participants in the now closed Investor programme cannot rely on a “Maxwell” funding scheme whereby they borrowed money supposedly under their ownership and control to meet the high qualifying threshold, leaving no guarantee that the money stayed in the UK economy. The closure of the Investor route in 2022 amid alarm at its use by wealthy Russians now limits the impact to extension applications.
- The Migration Advisory Committee is reporting to Government again on possible revisions / additions to the Shortage Occupation List giving priority and concessions to skilled migrants in particular high-demand fields.
- A shock hike in the Immigration Health Surcharge by which sponsored employee migrants and others pay an annual fee to use the NHS, topping out at £1,035 per year, up from £624, for many applicants. This is combined with an approximately 15% increase in immigration filing fees – implementation dates are awaited but will not be far off. Public sector pay rises have to be paid for – this implies an electorally palatable path to raising revenue.
- A planned crackdown on illegal working – the employment of workers who do not have the required immigration permission to do the jobs they are doing – culminated in 105 arrests. Over 300 immigration officers were deployed in illegal working raids commercial premises including restaurants, car washes, nail bars, barber shops and convenience stores. The Home Office has signalled repeatedly that it will extend its investigations into professional services businesses and that significant new resource has been dedicated to tackling illegal working, This is a good time for businesses to review right to work checks.
- Extended access to the Ukraine Extension Scheme to May 2024 for displaced Ukrainian nationals.
- Curbing the ability of international students to switch into work routes prior to course completion – the Government claims this is closing a loophole by which some use the student route as a foothold to the detriment of the resident labour market. Switching for student to dependent of a person in a work route is also being blocked.
- Post-Brexit trade agreements: there are some relaxations for some countries in relation to visit activities and process; the India-specific scheme for young professionals; and the inclusion of mutual immigration programmes and priority routes as part of trade discussions.
- Proposed relaxations for migration of elite footballers – a few people, but a lot of money riding on them in the UK’s big-money sport.
Even some Government ministers are beginning to question the effectiveness of current policy. But, was any policy effective, under any Government, in recent decades?
Listen to our podcast on immigration context since our last issue here.