By James Nodder and Emma Jones
With immigration a subject of fierce debate in recent years, it’s little wonder the latest UK Government white paper on the UK’s immigration system states an aim to “reset the conversation on migration”.
For many employers, immigration is an important avenue for attracting the talent and skills they need and immigrants make a significant contribution to the UK economy and workforce. However, there are also areas of public concern, including perceptions that immigration by those without jobs and low earners has driven wage deflation, competition for jobs, increased demand on services and security risks. The effectiveness of controls over entry and exit checks and compliance for those with visas have also been widely discussed, and controversial enforcement activities including the ‘hostile environment’ and the Windrush crisis have led to calls for a new approach.
This ‘reset’ involves nothing less than wholesale transformation. The UK Government’s current ambition for the future of immigration is unprecedented. The driving vision is changing the immigration system to achieve “a high wage, high-skill, high productivity economy”. There is a focus on the need to attract highly skilled migrants, to contribute to the growth of the UK economy, regional development, and sectors with specific skills shortages. There is also an emphasis on balancing this with strong controls and security - making sure those with relevant criminal convictions are not allowed into the country, and that migrants are complying with conditions and making the required contributions.
An extensive range of changes have been set out to enable this transformation: the introduction of a new points-based system for those coming to the UK with an offer of employment (including from the EU); the expansion of the Global Talent Scheme to include EU nationals; an Electronic Travel Authorisation for all visitors; and the increased use of biometrics.
Clearly the end of free movement between the UK and EU due on 31st December 2020 creates an urgent need for action over the next few months. However, these initial activities will only be able to deliver the first steps of the full HMG ambition across the entire immigration system; a “firm and fair points-based system that will attract the high-skilled workers we need to contribute to our economy, our communities and our public services”.
The challenge of building upon initial tactical delivery activities to achieve the comprehensive vision should not be underestimated. Based on examples and lessons from our work to support governments around the world, we believe there are three key areas that require clear strategic thinking:
As an input this system will require a new level of detailed, timely, and accurate data about immigration and demand in the wider UK economy to enable a clear view of the current situation and dynamic forecasting. Corresponding changes to the points-based assessment formulae, salary thresholds and quotas for priority skills must not only be straightforward for the UK authorities to make for their own internal operations, but they must be transparent and simple for employers and educational establishments to implement. The economic and secondary impacts of COVID-19 and EU Exit are examples of the need for agility and flexibility within the system to target and fill very specific (and potentially geographically bound) short-medium term needs.
Tackling these key areas and defining a clear way forward is not insurmountable and there are a variety of solution options to explore. This is a once in a generation opportunity to seize the current level of ambition and execute an innovative immigration strategy; delivering real transformation for the future of the UK.