Migration policy needs a rest, not constant change

IT IS no secret that the government’s work permit policy, especially the cap on migration, has not always been welcomed by business. Economists and employers can see that a strong economy comes from a strong, flexible workforce. The skills needed by UK businesses are not always available here, so employers need to look abroad. And if we want multinational companies to base themselves here we need a diverse global workforce.

In reality the system, as currently shaped, can work for business. The government has set a cap of 20,700 new skilled non-EU migrants for the year from 6 April. In the first five months only 10,200 places were available and only 4,300 were used. The monthly quota system can be frustratingly slow (fortnightly would be better) but it compares favourably to the single annual American visa cap.

Unfortunately, the effectiveness of the system has been lost behind an agenda of constant change. Since the election the Home Office has published four consultations relating to skilled foreign workers. The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), a body responsible for providing independent economic advice, has published many more.

This state of permanent revolution drains business confidence. Employers need certainty in every aspect of regulation. They cannot plan if the rules are continually changing.

Last Wednesday, the MAC published their latest call for evidence. It will appear innocuous to most people outside of the immigration industry but could have a real impact on the way the UK is viewed as a place to invest.

Damian Green, the immigration minister, has asked the MAC questions about the number and type of non-EU workers that should be able to come to the UK from next April. Parts of the review are to be expected, others will be welcomed. If the government is to cap economic migrants, it is reasonable to ask for advice on how many should be able to enter. The proposal that vacancies paying over £70,000 should no longer have to be advertised in Jobcentres for a month makes sense.

Questions around salary and payments are technical but concerning. Existing policy means that businesses in the developing world often have to increase remuneration tenfold before they could transfer a member of staff to the UK. This latest proposal could mean they have to retain that salary when they return. It is easy to see how that could seriously damage the UK’s trade relations with emerging economies and negatively impact the UK’s ability to attract multinational companies.

It is easy to pick out and criticise policy proposals in isolation. To be fair to Damian Green and his officials, they do have a good record of listening to business leaders and adjusting policy accordingly. I hope they do that again here.

More concerning is the insistence on continually changing the system. The government has pushed through a lot of change over the last 18 months. It would be wrong not to recognise that this took real political leadership, but what is needed now is a chance to let the system bed in and see how it is working.

Brendan Ryan is a managing director of Fragomen, an immigration law services specialist.