Making a mess of immigration policy isn't an endeavour restricted to the Labour party. As much as we enjoyed their festival of confusion yesterday regarding the free movement of workers, the Tories have now given us a clear reminder that politicians of all stripes are capable of getting tangled up in this sensitive area of policy.
In April, a new annual tax on hiring workers from outside the EU will come into effect. If you want to take on an Indian engineer on a four year contract, you'll have to cough up £4,000 for the privilege. The idea, apparently designed to encourage employers to take on home-grown talent, emerged from the Home Office when it was under the stewardship of one T May, home secretary.
Employers groups warned against the policy when it was mooted early last year, with the Institute of Directors saying the levy “will hurt thousands of firms and make it harder to bring in skilled workers in areas where we have shortages.” Despite the pleas from employers, the idea has become policy.
Yesterday, immigration minister Robert Goodwill told a Lords committee the policy could be extended to include workers from EU countries. This provoked a stinging backlash from employers and advocates of a liberal immigration policy, and went down like a cup of cold sick among EU officials.
Downing Street promptly moved to distance themselves from the off-script minister, but the Home Office (for a while at least) maintained the policy was an option. All this comes after the shambles of last autumn that saw the government float proposals for a register of foreign workers. Just as that idea was swiftly dropped, extending the migrant levy to EU workers seems to have been put back in the box, too.
For now. But just like the doomed register of foreign workers, the fact that a minister was seen to flirt with the idea of extending the migrant levy to EU workers – at a time of unprecedented sensitivity – has not gone unnoticed on the continent. The whole debacle risks reinforcing the idea, already taking hold, that a post-Brexit UK will be inward-looking and hostile to high-skilled international workers. We simply cannot afford to be lumbered with this reputation.