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 on migration have started to argue that temporary or ‘circular’ migration is healthier for migrants’ countries of origin. Above all, it could have pointed out that their predecessors had already rejected in principle the old assumption that migrant workers have an automatic right to settle, leaving just the practical question of where you draw the line. There is evidence that migration is becoming increasingly temporary anyway, without government intervention, as barriers to mobility continue to fall. The new government could have chosen to accelerate this shift in a measured and gradual way.
For instance, the previous government had set out plans to extend the points-based system, already in place for selecting which migrants could get visas, to decide which migrants could transfer from temporary to permanent residence. Home office officials had worked up plans to implement it, before the new government announced it was scrapping the whole “earned citizenship” framework after the election. It reappears as an option in last week’s consultation, but seemingly only as a straw man: ministers have made clear they are committed to a more radical change, with only a “tightly controlled minority” of skilled economic migrants—premiership footballers, investment bankers and a few others—allowed to stay beyond five years.
This makes sense when you realise that what is really driving these reforms, in this as in other areas, is the Government’s obsession with net migration. To meet its overall net migration target, the government needs to ensure not just that fewer migrants enter the country, but also that emigration remains high. If it can make it harder for migrants to settle, that should result in increased annual emigration.
How much it increases emigration will depend on how well it works in practice. The Migration Observatory pointed out last week that if the changes only affect new arrivals, much of the impact on emigration will be delayed until after the next election. But will it work even then? Previous large-scale temporary economic migration schemes have generally been regarded as failures, most famously in America and Germany in the decades following the second world war. The German experience with Turkish ‘guest workers’ popularised the slogan “there is nothing more permanent than temporary workers,” as well as leading to problems with segregated communities, as those migrants who did end up staying were discouraged from integrating.
The schemes which have been more successful, with migrants not just being ‘expected’ to return but actually returning, have usually been seasonal—like the Canadian schemes targeted at Latin American migrants, and Britain’s seasonal agricultural workers scheme, in which workers return home at the end of the summer and have a chance to return the following summer. This is quite different from the current proposals, which apply to all economic migration, and are closer to the German model. Imagine a migrant worker in 2016 who has been living here continuously for five years, in a skilled job, learning the language, paying taxes, supporting themselves, and keeping out of trouble. Does it make sense to tell them they have to leave? Is it reasonable to say this to their employer—especially if there is no obvious replacement? Is it even realistic? The language in last week’s consultation, about migrants being ‘expected’ to leave, is the kind of thing the Conservatives derided in opposition—and there were no details on how the new policy would be enforced.
As well as the risk that the policy will be ineffective and the risk of encouraging segregation rather than integration, there is the third risk that this policy will put off those migrants we most want to attract. Not all economic migrants intend to settle, or do settle when given the opportunity. But they clearly value the option, and if Britain effectively closes the route to settlement for skilled workers, or tightens it excessively, we may lose many of the ‘brightest and best’ whom David Cameron and the government have repeatedly claimed they want to continue to attract, to countries who operate a less restrictive approach to settlement.
As with the cap on skilled workers, and the restrictions on student visas—which according to the government’s own estimate will take billions of pounds out of the economy—once again these reforms are motivated by the political target on net migration. The Government cannot control many of the drivers of net migration, including the emigration of Britons, and immigration from Eastern Europe, much of which is for low-skill work. The risk is that they are clamping down most on those areas which are easiest to control, simply because they are easiest to control, despite the fact that they are the most economically valuable. This may cause real damage to our economy, at a time when the recovery is fragile.
For those who care only about reducing net migration, trying to make all economic immigration temporary makes sense. But for anyone who cares about Britain’s ability to continue to attract the ‘brightest and best,’ about the impact on the economy as we try to grow our way out of recession, and about the impact on social cohesion, these proposals raise real concerns.
For more on this topic see also:
Tommy Stadlen: Why don’t politicians tell the truth about immigration?