The government has lost the economic argument around immigration

It now straddles two contradictory claims.

Gus O'Donnell, the former head of the civil service, has written in an article in the Times that the government is "shooting itself in the foot" with its desire to lower immigration.

He writes (£):

A big barrier to growth is an immigration policy that deprives the UK of skilled workers in certain disciplines. Lord Heseltine, while at pains to avoid criticising the Government, clearly sympathises with the difficulties that businesses face in recruiting these workers.

O'Donnell's criticism piles on the pressure the government is facing to justify its immigration policy in economic, as well as just populist, terms. As he mentioned, Heseltine's review, No stone unturned (pdf), also tactfully steers a course rather different to that currently being pursued by the Home Office.

Heseltine writes:

It goes almost without saying that the ideal solution is a well-managed immigration system that is open and welcoming to those who can address our skills gaps and add value to the economy, yet is unattractive to those who do not have and would not get permission to be here. This is easier said than done at a time of tough manpower constraints in the public sector.

While it "almost goes without saying", that is not actually the government's own strategy. The Conservatives are locked into a damaging attempt to bring net migration in under an arbitrary cap; and worse, they have no power to affect the biggest single contributor to that number, which is intra-EU migration.

As a result, the party is forced to attack the small sliver of migration they can have an effect on. But unskilled, non-EU migration had already been extremely constrained by the previous government, so to limit immigration any further, skilled migration came under fire. Even with new strict measures on visas, the government is losing the fight miserably. Its target is net migration of 100,000 people; the latest figures show that number is 216,000.

Politically the government is failing. It has set itself a challenge which it will not – cannot – meet. That alone would be a reason for abandoning the aim now, nobly accepting defeat, even if that figure weren't one which no sane government ought to try to achieve.

Last week's Economist leader laid out the problem the economy faces as a result of this policy in stark terms:

The country has, in effect, installed a “keep out” sign over the white cliffs of Dover. Even as Mr Cameron defends the City of London as a global financial centre, and takes planeloads of business folk on foreign trips, his government ratchets up measures that would turn an entrepôt into a fortress. In the past two years the Tories have made it much harder for students and foreign workers and family members to enter and settle in the country. Britain is not only losing the war for global talent, it is scarcely competing. More people now leave to take up job offers in other countries than come the other way.

In fact, even the nascent pro-immigration voices on the right don't take the argument far enough. While many of them are content to make the argument that immigration represents a favourable trade-off between unemployment and growth, few take the extra step of point out that immigration can help with both employment and growth. This argument involves tackling head-on the pervasive "lump of labour" fallacy – the idea that there are a fixed number of jobs, and if a foreigner gets one, then a Briton can't.

Forbes blogger Adam Ozimek writes about Silicon Valley, where a similar argument is taking place after a technology journalist, Robert X Cringley, has criticised skilled-migration visas:

Imagine the worst case scenario in Cringely’s mind occurs, and a foreign worker takes a job at a 30% discount, and a native worker who could have had the job has to settle for a lower paying job. To understand the impact on U.S. workers you have to look beyond this worker who has had his job “stolen”, and must look at what economists call the general equilibrium effect. Here are other things that happen: the H1-B worker buys or rents a home, and a landlord of home seller benefits, overall, new houses will be built, meaning construction workers benefit. The H1-B worker shops at a grocery store, which employs workers, and sells goods made by farmers who also employ workers. See how this goes?

The economic case for limiting migration is thoroughly lost. At best, the government is now facing the risk that this argument filters into the popular perception; at worst, it is in the position of encouraging a popular attitude which is simply incorrect.

Placards at a protest against the decision to strip London Met university of its ability to sponsor international study. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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.