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Theresa May has missed an opportunity to be honest about immigration. Again

The division between skilled and unskilled migration is largely fictional.

By Stephen Bush

Of all the lies in politics, the one most widely and commonly repeated is the idea of the “skilled” and the “unskilled” migrant. The day-to-day operation of Australia’s points system is that it exposes the myth for all to see: professions regularly drop between the two to reflect the real shortages in the economy which have little to do with skill but actually reflect economic need.

Because of course the question of how you define a “skilled” migrant is always up in the air depending on the role you are hiring and the needs of the economy. And, of course, there are a number of unskilled jobs that the British working age population simply cannot fill on its own.  

In the case of the government’s proposals for immigration after Brexit, the division is particularly ridiculous. At present a “skilled” migrant is someone who earns more than £30,000 a year. To highlight how artificial this is: on this metric, most of the teachers who come to the United Kingdom from Australia and New Zealand, are unskilled, unless they are a department head, in which case they are somehow “skilled” workers. A doctor in their foundation year is unskilled, unless they do any overtime, in which case they become “skilled”. Plumbers are “unskilled”. All but the very highest-paid academics are “unskilled”. A chef cooking Michelin Bib winning quality food outside the capital is “unskilled” but becomes “skilled” the moment they take a job in a restaurant of equivalent quality in London.

The government is also storing up trouble for itself because if implemented, a number of industries that are currently reliant on the free movement of people from within the European Economic Area would have skills shortages that will not fit easily into this division. Theresa May talks a lot about the need to win trust in the immigration system – it is not clear how a system you have to very publicly adjust and make holes in to make fit for purpose is going to win trust or anything like it.

It’s even more disappointing because the reason British policymakers used to pretend that the skilled/unskilled division was useful is that “skilled migration” is popular with the public but “unskilled migration” is not.  Successive pro-European governments already had big enough problems trying to manage public opposition to the free movement of labour within the European Economic Area, and opted to reinforce other myths rather than add to that problem. The post-Brexit immigration system is an opportunity for genuine honesty about immigration.

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May had a big opportunity to set out a different approach but she has opted not to do it. There are a number of interesting policy ideas in this space, from letting universities issue their own visas for academics and overseas students, to the Adam Smith Institute’s proposal that businesses should be able to buy visas from the government at will (a neat revenue earner as well and one likely to be less of a blunt instrument than the apprenticeship levy). But clearly, anyone hoping for anything of that nature will have to wait for a different Prime Minister.