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  1. Election 2024
  2. UK Politics
23 November 2023

The Tories’ secret workforce: record immigration

A government obsessed with sounding tough on migrants loves employing them.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Net migration hit a record 745,000 last year, the Office for National Statistics revealed today. Not only was this an all-time high, it was also much higher than the original figure calculated by experts in May of 606,000. Net migration hasn’t fallen back significantly since then, with the latest immigration figures putting it at 672,000 in the year to June.

There are a number of ironies in these figures.

First, these new arrivals are entering under a government that has staked much of its reputation on hostility towards migration. Until recently, we had a home secretary, Suella Braverman (tolerated and often defended by Rishi Sunak), who warned of a “hurricane” of migrants, aimed to reduce numbers below 100,000 (a David Cameron-era pledge) and said multiculturalism had “failed”. Lee Anderson, the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, was defended by the Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk, and No 10 when he told asylum seekers to “f*** off back to France”, and is still in his job.

Sunak himself has “stop the boats” – referring to irregular immigration – as one of his most prominent promises ahead of the next election. Until May this year his target was to bring down the overall legal migration figures to below 245,000. That target that has since been quietly dropped.

In his Autumn Statement Jeremy Hunt boasted of welfare reforms intended to force claimants into work and mocked Labour, in contrast, as “hanker[ing] after a more liberal immigration regime”. But it is the Conservatives, since Brexit, who have drastically liberalised the immigration system. Despite the close association of the Leave campaign with strengthening borders, net migration has risen dramatically since the EU referendum in 2016.

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Essentially, ministers have swapped EU workers for non-EU workers from India, Pakistan, Nigeria and elsewhere. This is how they’re plugging gaps in understaffed sectors in Britain – though they never talk about it. In fact, hidden in the small-print of the Chancellor’s Budget in March – all about “getting Brits back to work” – was the addition of five construction job types to the “shortage occupation list” (sectors where visa requirements are relaxed to allow more foreign workers in).

[See also: Keir Starmer needs a coherent plan for immigration]

No matter how much they orate about bringing Britain back to work, the Tories’ secret workforce is drawn from abroad.

Vote Leave would argue this is “taking back control”, as the slogan had it. There is, after all, more control in our immigration system than there was under EU freedom of movement. It’s just the state is using that control to bring in more people than before. Under the post-Brexit points system, the government can essentially decide which jobs it needs to fill and add them to the shortage occupation list.

To the government’s advantage, the public seems less exercised about this approach. Polls consistently show public opinion growing more sympathetic towards migration. It may be that with public services strained, people are more eager that understaffing be dealt with. Or it may be that under this new system the influx of newcomers is simply less obvious than was the case with the relatively sudden arrival of, say, agricultural workers from Latvia and Lithuania to Boston, Lincolnshire. Either way, as the politics professor Rob Ford shows, there has been a “huge shift in the politics of immigration now compared to a decade or two ago”.

Far less popular are asylum hotels costing the government £7m a day and taking up rooms and space in towns across the country. The issue of what most regard as “illegal migration” – people piled into dinghies arriving on British shores to seek asylum – undermines the “control” element that has been brought into the legal migration system. Most voters support the Illegal Migration Act’s more punitive provisions towards asylum seekers arriving this way.

This is why the government is so preoccupied with “stopping the boats”. But for a party that has long benefited politically from lumping all migration – refugees, asylum seekers, EU citizens, visa holders from non-EU states, even students – together, today’s figures undermine its tough rhetoric on Channel crossings.

[See also: Scotland has an immigration problem]

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