Brexit offers the chance to positively reshape our immigration policies
The beginning of a new year is always a good time to reflect. It’s an opportunity to take stock of the year past, and look ahead to goals for the new one. Having spent the past few weeks over-indulging during the holidays, I am sure many of us will be questioning some of our decisions. Should I apply for that new job? Do I renew my gym membership?
Needless to say, a little soulsearching every now and then is good for you, and if anyone is in need of doing this it’s our politicians.
You do not need me to tell you that 2017 was an eventful year, but it was also one riddled with confusing and contradictory messages from the two main political parties. If there is any one area that is in need of a rethink, it is no doubt our immigration system.
This has been a long-running source of disagreement between government and business, from the crude “tens of thousands” target to refusing to remove international students from it. Still, it has not all been bad. Indeed, it is very important that we give the Prime Minister credit for her recent agreement to guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK. This is a major milestone. Openness to people from across the world, at a time of record levels of employment – but also vacancies – will enable businesses to recruit the workers they need to grow.
While some see concerns about immigration as a desire to drastically cut the numbers coming here, most Britons are more concerned about gaining a sense of control.
Focusing purely on numbers means we miss many opportunities to improve our immigration and visa systems and ensure that we continue to get the people we need. Indeed, many improvements could be made that would meet with a wider consensus than the divisive question over whether we want more or less immigration as a whole. For instance, the Home Office currently uses earnings as a proxy for skills when allocating new visas. The logic is that higher pay signals greater experience and skill, and therefore a more merited visa recipient. Where, however, does this leave potential teachers, nurses and care workers?
Another area for improvement is the sheer complexity of the visa system. This bureaucratic labyrinth is far too convoluted for many SMES to navigate. While big businesses can devote entire HR teams to filling out visa applications, smaller employers are more constrained. We clearly need a more streamlined system.
Some also see immigration as an impediment to businesses’ desire to enhance the skills of domestic workers. In truth, businesses do not see these two as mutually exclusive. Improving the skills of workers in the UK is a leading priority for company directors, and progress is being made.
In a recent survey of IOD members, investing in skills and training was recognised as a key way for directors to improve productivity. About two thirds of those surveyed plan to invest in staff training over the next year. The new apprenticeship levy is acting as a spur, but government should recognise that while apprenticeships are good for training people starting a new job, they are not the best way to improve the skills of those already in a job. The levy should therefore be opened up to other forms of training to enable workers to re-skill. These are, of course, just some of the many complex and contentious principles underlying the issue of immigration. I could not possibly try to list them all here, but this should not stop us seeking a consensus on effective reforms. This new year – with Brexit on the horizon – is an opportunity to rethink our policies.
I have been fortunate to have lived in some of the world’s most interesting cities but there is no place like London, or the UK. This is at least in part because of its openness to different cultures. We must not forget our advantages as we forge ahead in the Brexit negotiations and reshape our immigration policy.