Brexit is coming, in exactly one week’s time. Now it is on to the details — and no area is more crucial to Britain’s future prosperity, nor more associated with the EU debate, than immigration.
There are real dangers if we get the new rules wrong.
It was therefore a relief to read reports this week that the Prime Minister is to scrap the proposed £30,000 salary threshold for overseas workers who want to move here. Prospect, as the union for highly qualified workers, has campaigned strongly against the threshold, in parallel with all the main UK business lobbies.
All too often, the immigration debate has focused on the question of total numbers, and not about how to bring in the people our country needs. Policy, in turn, has too often been driven by dogma and not-too-subtle signalling, rather than by evidence on what would work for the economy.
Never has this been more apparent than with the £30,000 salary threshold. The idea was that it would limit the number of low-skilled workers coming into the country, easing competition for people looking for jobs, and satisfying those elements of the electorate who think that we have too many people coming in full stop.
Personally, I believe that immigration as a whole is a benefit to the UK. But regardless, restricting entry for those who earn below £30,000 would not help workers. In fact, it could seriously damage our economy.
According to the ONS, £30,000 is well above the median salary for qualified roles such as laboratory technicians, pharmaceutical technicians, dispensing opticians, photographers, audio-visual and broadcasting equipment operators, conservation and environmental associate professionals, archivists and curators, and science and engineering technicians.
Other highly skilled roles which would be severely impacted include chemical scientists, engineering technicians, environmental health professionals, chartered surveyors, and construction project managers. No one would think of these jobs as low-skilled, but a £30,000 threshold would lock out talented overseas applicants from nearly a quarter of such roles.
Science in particular would be badly affected. A recent study by the Royal Society showed that key providers of science infrastructure have workforces which are up to 23 per cent non-UK EU nationals, well above the national average. It would be catastrophic if we cut off their supply of new workers from the EU and elsewhere.
The government seems to have finally realised that economists, unions, and business groups are correct in their assessment that a £30,000 threshold would be a disaster. Its proposed alternative is an “Australian-style points-based system”. This could at least be designed to take economic need and people’s actual qualifications into account, rather than deciding based on a completely arbitrary salary marker. But there is still no evidence that this is actually what will happen.
One must wonder why it has taken the government so long to row back on the salary threshold. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the optics of the policy in the eyes of key voter demographics seemed more important than the evidence.
This brand of evidence-free policy making has to end. Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s abrasive Svengali-esque chief of staff, has made a huge deal about bringing external experts into government to improve the quality of decision making. We can only hope that he is applying this same rigour he espouses to the future immigration policies of the country.
The Migration Advisory Committee is due to publish a report next week on salary thresholds, and a government white paper is expected in March. We will be watching with interest to see if they take our concerns into account, and devise an immigration policy fit for a modern, global Britain.
Main image credit: Getty