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18 May 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 10:41am

Coronavirus makes the Immigration Bill look like an even worse idea

The government says it’s trying to stop “cheap, low-skilled labour” – which is exactly what the UK is relying on in the pandemic.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Our post-Brexit immigration system moves one step closer, with the Immigration Bill entering its second reading in the House of Commons today.

The new legislation is based mainly on the principle of prioritising “skilled” labour. It replaces free movement of workers from the European Union with a points-based ranking system (using criteria such as English-language ability, qualifications and professional experience) for all migrants.

“We will no longer have the routes for cheap, low-skilled labour, that obviously has dominated immigration and our labour market for far too long in this country,”  the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, told the BBC in February.

But the coronavirus crisis has illustrated how the UK relies on the very labour that Patel identified as “cheap” and “low-skilled” – the work of carers and ancillary hospital staff, cleaners, food processing and seasonal agricultural workers, delivery drivers, construction workers, and many others who have helped to keep the country going during the pandemic (as indeed they did before it).

This has given Labour, and other critics of the proposed new system, plenty of grounds upon which to oppose the bill. The shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, released a statement this morning in which he called it “rank hypocrisy towards our NHS and care workers” to “clap for them on a Thursday night, and then tell them that they are not welcome in the UK on a Monday”. He warned that the bill “risks the NHS not being able to fill the desperately needed roles for trained nurses and care home workers at the very moment when we rely on the NHS most”.

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Drawing on public sympathy towards such workers is a gift to an opposition that has struggled, in recent years, to articulate a coherent immigration stance; Jeremy Corbyn was both in favour of greater migrant rights and against keeping free movement after Brexit.

Indeed, YouGov polling for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants suggests 54 per cent of people would support looser immigration controls for workers who could fill “essential” roles during the pandemic.

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But these changes are not as significant as they may appear, and they do not address the problems at the heart of this policy.

The British public was already sympathetic to the idea of talented individuals making Britain their home – in January, a poll for the think tank British Future showed 63 per cent of people believe “high-skilled” migrants should be favoured. The focus on “high-skilled” newcomers (or the “people of talent” to whom Boris Johnson kept referring during the last election campaign) is rhetoric to reflect public opinion. 

The contradiction of this policy is that an approach as unflexible as the new system is likely to damage the country economically. For thise reason it’s likely that the new system will have to be far more liberal than is currently claimed (and we already know that the arbitrary categories and points of the new system can be changed by the Migration Advisory Committee, which advises the government).

More fundamentally, however, describing certain people as “essential” to helping the UK through the coronavirus crisis evokes the same dehumanising picture of deserving and undeserving migrants, as described by Maya Goodfellow in the 2019 book Hostile Environment about the history of British immigration policy.

When the government judges people solely by the economic or professional utility they can offer to the “native” population, it silently encourages negative sentiment towards certain migrants. It is from such thinking that policy disasters such as the Windrush scandal emerge, and it is for this reason that an independent review into Windrush in March reminded the Home Office that migration “policy is about people” and should be “rooted in humanity”.

We should be wary, then, of either party using our immigration system as a vote-winner. Something so important, and contentious, should be decided by good policy sense, rather than something as fickle and malleable as public opinion.