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19 December 2018

The immigration white paper is a combination of bad economics and toxic politics

The proposals contained within are both unpopular and economically damaging. 

By Stephen Bush

There is a lot that is obviously wrong with the government’s proposals for immigration.

The aspect that has attracted the most derision is the £30,000 salary floor, designed supposedly to weed out “unskilled” migrants. But of course, many jobs that are visibly high skilled do not meet this threshold or do so only in some parts of country. A chef cooking Michelin Bib quality food would be classed as “unskilled” if they were cooking award-winning food in rural Cornwall but “skilled” if they were cooking meals of the same quality in London. A chef cannot become unskilled purely by leaving a major city. A newly qualified doctor cannot become “skilled” solely by dint of having done an extra shift of overtime.

The big economic problem, of course, is that the divide between “skilled” and “unskilled” migration is entirely arbitrary and any immigration system that attempts to divide people who want to come to a country in this manner is doomed either to ridicule or to failure, as its architects are forced to poke increasingly ridiculous holes in it. Take Australia’s “skilled occupations list”, which in 2002 included hairdressers but excluded glaziers. Now in 2018 it includes glaziers but excludes hairdressers. Has installing a window become more skilled a job in the past 16 years? Has hairdressing got easier? The answer to both these questions is the same: no. What has changed is that the needs of the economy have shifted.

The state is good at a number of things but it tends to be exceptionally poor at working out what types of immigration a country “needs”.

But there are also problems with how these proposals address not just what the country needs, but what British voters want. Voters consistently tell pollsters, academics, television cameras and essentially anyone who will listen that what they want from immigrants is people who come to the United Kingdom to learn English, to integrate into society, to work and to put down roots, or to have come here to study.

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All of these types of immigration are discouraged by the government’s plans. Increasing the number of time-limited 12-month visas of course means that most immigrants to Britain will be transitory, and making it harder for people to bring loved ones means that they will not put down roots or bother to integrate into society. Those contemplating studying in the United Kingdom will be discouraged by the prospect of being turfed out as soon as a random celebrity has handed them their degree certificate, especially when they could instead go to a European or American university and be more likely to be able to stay and find a job.

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So the government’s white paper is a remarkable document, in that it cannot, as written, meet the economic needs of the country or the electoral demands of British voters.