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28 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 3:49pm

Why businesses are speaking out against the UK’s immigration plans

While companies have previously been wary of entering the debate, many are now concerned that they will be left lacking workers and skills.

By Marta Foresti

Last week the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, announced a new immigration system that she said would allow only the “brightest and best” into the UK, no matter where they are from. This marks the end of free movement for European migrants and, notably, the decision to block low-skilled migration. The plans, optimistically set to come into force in just under a year’s time, effectively bar most businesses from recruiting outside the UK for unskilled workers or anyone who will be paid less than £25,600 annually.

Patel’s announcement has been met with widespread dismay. There is no doubt that the language is vile and divisive, with the loaded characterisation of cheap labour from Europe, encouraging people with the “right talent” to come to Britain, and the drawing of trade-offs between the automation of work and workers themselves.

The proposals echo the language that has characterised political debates around migration since the referendum campaign, while technical details remain thin on the ground. Inevitably there will be some winners and losers from the new system, but how these new rules play out in reality will depend on how the system is implemented. Currently that is just not clear enough.

The signs are that what has been proposed falls short of delivering what the UK economy actually needs to remain competitive in the post-Brexit era. As Bronwen Maddox has rightly pointed out in the Financial Times, the main pull factor for immigration depends on economic growth and employment.  As it stands, employment levels in the UK are at a record high. In several key sectors of the UK economy the country needs more workers, not fewer.  

The new system may well favour sectors that require highly skilled and qualified migrants. Highly skilled workers can easily move and find work anywhere in the world, so the question now for the UK is how it will remain an attractive option. But it leaves many questions unanswered for key sectors such as social care, agriculture, hospitality and construction, all of which currently rely heavily on workers from the European Union.  

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The good news is that the announcement has provoked a strong reaction amongst businesses likely to be affected by the new system. Until now, the private sector has been relatively silent in debates around migration, fearful of the increasingly toxic tone. Now that the debate is moving beyond electoral slogans of closing borders or “taking back control” – to focus on jobs, qualifications, skills and salaries. Businesses are beginning to speak out.

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The director of the confederation of British Industry, Carolyn Fairbairn, captured the anxiety of many businesses. “In some sectors firms will be left wondering how they will recruit the people needed to run their businesses,” she wrote, before going on to emphasise that “firms know that hiring from overseas and investing in the skills of their workforce and new technologies is not an ‘either-or’ choice – both are needed to drive the economy forward”.

There is more to immigration than economic growth. Immigration also matters for social cohesion, culture and inclusion. Many communities and societies remain fractured along these lines. But beyond these divisions, what people want is a more pragmatic and rational approach to handling immigration in ways that can benefit communities all around the UK, as well as for migrants and their families.

Recent research we’ve carried out at the Overseas Development Institute has shown that the UK public feels less negatively about immigration than is often portrayed. Around 40 per cent of Britons feel positively about immigration, with another 40 per cent falling into an “anxious middle” that is ambivalent towards the impacts of immigration and has rapidly shifting views. This anxious middle is likely to be strongly influenced by negative political rhetoric around immigration, which is why the framing of Patel’s proposal may end up perpetuating existing anxieties and misconceptions about the effects on immigration on Britain.

Businesses can play a vital role in achieving a more neutral and pragmatic conversation on the role of immigration in shaping Britain’s future. While the system proposed will be far from perfect, and is likely to lead to significant confusion and uncertainty, it may well be an opportunity to begin a more balanced national conversation on immigration. It is time for the government to tone down its rhetoric and get to work on a bill that can deliver for the British people and our economy.

Marta Foresti is director of the Human Mobility Initiative at the Overseas Development Institute.