Theresa May’s plans for immigration will make us a poorer, sadder country

Controlling immigration is Theresa May’s red line. Is it worth it?

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“An end to free movement.” When Theresa May intervened in the drafting of her Brexit agreement, those were the words she added to the front page. 

For two years Theresa May has made ending free movement the reddest of her red lines. The Brexit pursued by the Prime Minister will make us worse off, takes us out of the most stable and affluent alliance on the planet and risks destabilising our own union. If it is going to be worth it then her new immigration policy – arriving, finally, this week – must be some prize.

So what should we expect? Well the plan is simple enough – end low skill migration, attract more high skilled migrants to power our economy and throw in a couple of tweaks to even out obvious problems to make sure the thing works in the real world.

So let’s take each area in turn.

First, the centrepiece – a ban on so-called low skill migration. The hope is that this will reduce net migration and slow the pace of change whilst forcing employers to invest more in training British workers and perhaps paying them a bit more too.

The problem with this grand plan is that much of our economy and public services rely on these very workers and we know from the government’s own advisers that the old claim that migrants significantly push down wages simply isn’t true.

Let’s take one low-skill (read: low-pay) sector particularly reliant on migrant workers: social care. Already on its knees thanks to a funding crisis – entirely down to the government, by the way – which in turn keeps pay low, the sector will need hundreds of thousands of new carers in the next decade to meet rising demand. In an age of full employment there is simply no plausible route to do that without migrant workers. Making the existing staffing crisis worse will put extra pressure on the NHS, force more of us into unpaid care, lower standards and push care homes out of business. Our loved ones in need of care will pay the price.  

So the first test then: behind the rhetoric how will this plan ensure that vital sectors like care or construction don’t collapse or grind to a halt?

Secondly: high-skill workers. These, remember, are the ones we want. Things will get a bit harder – Europeans will need a visa, which means time, hassle and money – but these people will still be able to come, and we might even open the door to a few more from the rest of the world as well.

So out with the low skilled and in with the high skilled, and off to a buccaneering Global Britain we go? Sadly, it’s not that simple. 

High-skilled migrants have options. We might want them, but will they still want us? Unfortunately the signs aren’t great. Since the referendum – without policy change remember – net migration from the EU has fallen by two-thirds and migrants from western Europe (typically the most high skilled) have halved. That’s already having real world effects for the rest of us – at a time when our NHS is already understaffed, doctors and nurses from the continent are looking elsewhere, and half of those already here are looking to leave.

If the white paper is to succeed there is going to have to be a pretty good plan to make the UK more attractive, because at the moment we are sending out some pretty strong signals and “come and join us” isn’t one of them.

And then finally, the tweaks and loose ends. Well, we expect a carve out for seasonal agricultural workers because even the most wishful thinkers in cabinet accept that there is no alternative; neither a widened youth mobility scheme, which will be lovely for young people but will do little for the labour market, nor an 11-month low-skill visa, to plug any remaining gaps, is going to solve the issues. In terms of the former, the government’s advisers accept that we are not going to see tens of thousands of young people flooding to the UK for a fun two years working in adult residential care. And as for the latter, it would artificially lower the net migration figures because migrants need to be in the UK for at least a year to count. Breathtakingly cynical but, well, there you are.

At the moment these measures don’t look serious. Instead they look to be talking points dressed up as policy – something for ministers to say if pushed on the damage that the headline ban on low-skilled migrants could do to great swathes of our economy.  

Taken together this looks like a plan to make us poorer, less dynamic, and less open to the world. The plan as expected will put off the high-skilled worked she wants, lock out the so-called low-skilled workers we need, and exacerbate staff shortages and put vital public services under even greater pressure. That’s some prize.