Brexit of­fers the chance to pos­i­tively re­shape our im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Business - Lady Bar­bara Judge CBE is chair­man of the In­sti­tute of Di­rec­tors BAR­BARA JUDGE

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.

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