Thursday 20 February 2020 12:07 am

The government is taking a gamble with its immigration reform

The Brexit pennies just keep on dropping. First there was a mixture of genuine and feigned shock when the government announced it would not align itself with EU regulations. Now, the publication of a new immigration strategy has some people up in arms at the prospect of reform.

But with the UK leaving the EU it is a matter of legal necessity that we devise a new immigration system — since freedom of movement will come to an end. Labour MPs, currently indulging in arguments about abolishing the monarchy or whether gender exists, took a break from their leadership contest to denounce the new policy as racist. Given the explicit aim is to treat everyone equally no matter their country of origin, this seemed a daft line of attack — not least since the government’s proposals do raise some serious concerns.

But first, the good news: this isn’t Theresa May’s immigration policy. May clung to the ludicrous target of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands. Home secretary Priti Patel yesterday stressed that the government had no interest whatsoever in a target, though she did say a consequence of the reforms would be a fall in the numbers.

To put it crudely, she wants to focus on quality, not quantity. And so to the policy itself. Under the new system a migrant worker will need 70 points to qualify, with points awarded for speaking English, having a job offer, fitting the salary bracket, working in a designated occupation, etc. The rules will apply to everyone whether EU national, Indian or Australian. There is a renewed focus on attracting high-skilled migrants, with a new global talent visa having no cap on numbers. That means competition for roles in science, technology and engineering is about to heat up.

Broadly speaking, there is much to welcome here, but it’s the change to so-called low-skill migration that will have the most immediate impact — particularly in the capital. Hospitality and construction employers’ groups have already sounded the alarm, but much will hinge on the government’s designation of sectors facing a shortage or workers. Agriculture and Indian restaurants have already been granted special status, so in theory there’s no reason why restaurants and retail couldn’t be added to the list.

It is possible that, over time, a shortage of labour sees wages rise to a point where roles become more attractive to domestic workers, but this won’t happen overnight and so the government must continue to listen to industry and the pressing needs of key sectors.

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