Immigration is an issue which cuts through. We have seen this with the firestorm following the announcement about how future migrants crossing the Channel will be diverted to Rwanda. The Home Office has pursued it with distinctive single-mindedness, precisely because of its political pull.
One of the most powerful slogans of the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016 was “take back control”.
The syllogism went something like this: immigration is too high; freedom of movement is part of the fundamental model of the European Union; therefore the UK should leave the EU in order to regain control of its immigration policy, with a view to reducing the numbers of people coming to settle in this country. There were flaws in this, but it proved popular.
This has translated itself into our current mess. Priti Patel, eager to assure she does have some level of control of the migrants making the journey across the Channel, has pursued this with a single minded focus. Meanwhile, important business sectors are languishing because of the lack of foreign talent.
Our immigration policy is still not “fit for purpose”. One industry facing particular challenges is the tech sector, which, we are told repeatedly, is one of the UK’s shining glories in the modern global economy.
London hosts one of the most international workforces in the world. In the tech sector, just over half of employees come from overseas, and so changes to immigration and residency rules have a disproportionate effect on the industry. Those rules must therefore be agile, adaptable and expertly informed in order to allow the industry to thrive.
There have been some steps forward. Tech Nation, the growth platform for the UK sector, sponsors a “global talent visa” which attempts to attract talent from across the world, offering not only the right to work in a competitive and blooming environment but also an instant, “plug-in” set of networks to help would-be entrepreneurs. Numbers have languished, however. Since the scheme was launched in 2014, there have been fewer than 5,000 applicants.
The government has also announced a Scale-Up visa for highly educated and qualified workers in growth industries like fintech which rely on international talent. But it is already behind schedule: it was originally planned for an April launch and arises from a recommendation made in 2014.
The prime minister, visiting India last week, signalled some movement. He told reporters that “we are short to the tune of hundreds of thousands of people in our economy and we need to have a progressive approach and we will.” Relaxation of rules for immigrants from India may be part of a quid pro quo to agree a free trade agreement with the world’s largest democracy.
What is the underlying problem? The government’s points-based system of immigration was heralded as exactly what the UK needed: a system which, freed from the uniformity of the EU, was flexible, agile and responsive.
But its benefits are proving slow to realise, and political priorities are diverting attention and resources. The home secretary has seemingly staked her political reputation on controlling the flow of migrants across the Channel, while the industries on which the future competitiveness of the UK—or Global Britain—depend have to chivvy, coax and wrangle with ministers and officials.
Whitehall must do better. The Home Office is notoriously and perhaps terminally sclerotic and dysfunctional, but it remains the department responsible for immigration policy. Other departments, like DCMS and BEIS, must (for want of a better phrase) scale up their efforts to champion growth industries and specialisms where the UK needs talent.
Post-Brexit Britain must be able to show itself an attractive destination for global high-flyers, and a heavy-lying miasma over the corridors of power does nothing to help this goal.
Politicians, especially on the right, are too quick to see reducing immigration as the only show in town, but a more clear-sighted and longer-term vision would encompass managing refugees and attracting, even through net increases, bright and valuable incomers from around the world. That is Global Britain.