Theresa May pledges immigration crackdown

The Home Secretary sets out new curbs on student visas and permanent settlement after the government

With her first major speech on immigration, Theresa May has begun to spell out how exactly the government plans to bring about a drastic reduction in the number of people settling in the UK.

First, more than 100,000 skilled workers and overseas students who come to Britain each year will lose the right to permanent settlement.

Second, the number of students who come to the UK to study below-degree-level courses – roughly 160,000 each year – will be slashed. They make up nearly half of the total of 320,000 international students, and are apparently more likely to overstay.

Perhaps taking into account that the Commons home affairs committee's Immigration Cap report last week underlined the "crucial importance" of international students to the UK, May stressed that students at degree level or above would not be affected.

Third, she backpedalled on David Cameron's Wednesday announcement that 30,000 migrants working for multinational companies would be exempt from the immigration cap. May said there would be a minimum-salary limit on this of roughly £40,000, to ensure that people are transferred for specialist or managerial positions only.

These measures are the first solid indication of how the government intends to keep its election promise of bringing net migration down into the "tens of thousands" from the current level of 196,000. The recent Commons report was unequivocal in its conclusion that "the proposed cap – unless it is set close to 100 per cent – will have little significant impact on overall immigration levels".

Clamping down on student visas and permanent settlement are the two obvious ways to go about reducing numbers, given that the flagship "immigration cap" policy is essentially unworkable. However, this will not necessarily provide the immediate results that the government needs.

Professor David Metcalf, chair of the Migration Advisory Committee, points out that "any such changes [to permanent settlement], even if introduced now, would not take effect until 2013-14".

Analysing the committee's report last week, Alice Sachrajda of IPPR noted that:

The policy of a cap was introduced as an election promise and so a more immediate outcome will be needed if the government is going to save face politically.

. . . It is now abundantly clear that achieving its policy objective of drastically cutting net migration is going to be an uphill struggle for the government. The coalition faces an unpalatable choice between introducing an ineffective policy that it knows is damaging to the economy and public services, or by finding a way to abandon or redefine the target.

The headache caused by the unfeasible and misguided policy of the "cap" is certainly not cured yet. Taken alone, these measures are unlikely to meet the arbitrary target of at least halving net migration. Taking steps to avoid damaging business or reducing university revenue even further, such as allowing intra-company transfers and degree-level students, makes the target even more distant.

More importantly, the government has yet to address the question of top businessmen, scientists and researchers from outside the EU, who still look likely to be the losers from more draconian immigration rules. A Nobel Prize-winning scientist (£) points out in the Times today that he might not have carried out research in Britain had these rules applied in the past – even if he had gained a visa, members of his team might not have done.

The government would be well advised to drop this meaningless target altogether.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.