In David Cameron’s speech on immigration in April, he said that “what matters most is not who comes into the country, but who stays.” “It cannot be right”, he went on, “that people coming to fill short-term skills gaps can stay long-term. It is essential we break the link between temporary visas and permanent settlement.”
Last week the home office slipped out a consultation paper setting out how it intends to do this. It included some sensible ideas, including extending the application of English tests, and a discussion of domestic worker visas, an area where there is evidence of migrants being exploited. But the central proposal was the more controversial one that all economic immigration will become essentially temporary. At the end of their visa—two, three, or at most five years—skilled migrants will be ‘expected’ to return home.
This contrasts sharply with the approach of the last Labour government. It did operate some temporary migration schemes, but it believed that working migrants who stayed for anything more than a few years should be encouraged to think about settling and applying for citizenship. From 2008, this was qualified by requiring them to satisfy certain additional criteria—in particular, knowledge of English and life in Britain, evidence of continuing economic contribution, and a clean criminal record—in the so-called ‘earned citizenship’ policy. But the intention was still to encourage long-staying economic migrants to settle. The conspiracy theorists saw this as part of a secret plan to maximize immigration for ideological or party-political ends. But in fact it reflected a belief, informed by long experience in Britain and elsewhere, that migrant workers who stay for more than a few years are very likely to stay indefinitely; and so it is much better to encourage them to act and feel like full members of society, and be seen as such by others.
When the present government took over, there were a number of genuine reasons why it could have questioned the system it inherited, and argued that the balance should be shifted more towards temporary rather than permanent migration. It could have argued that temporary migration already plays a positive role in our economy, including students and some categories of workers. It could have noted that progressive thinkers…