For many firms in my constituency, a flexible immigration policy is the litmus test for the proposition that the UK is ‘open for business’.
It was therefore only a matter of months into the coalition’s five year term before the wisdom of its immigration cap came into question. No one doubted the popular appeal of this sound-bite policy. But was it possible to reduce net annual migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ without causing economic harm?
The public commitment to this policy goal has always disguised tensions over it within the coalition government. The Treasury and Business Department understand that the free flow of talented professionals, entrepreneurs and students to the UK is vital to delivering economic growth. But the Home Office has always pushed back against attempts to loosen the rules, confident in its strong mandate from the public.
It goes without saying that immigration reform of some kind was needed. The Home Secretary has made great strides in cracking down on bogus colleges, sham marriages, health tourists and the like. The government is also making progress in addressing the ‘pull’ factors that make Britain appeal to benefits tourists – thought not fast enough for some.
However as February’s migration figures demonstrated, the coalition’s cap has been undeliverable – net migration has risen by 42% to 298 000 in the past year alone. This was always going to be the case for so long as we had virtually unrestricted movement of EU citizens. What is a mark of this nation’s success – the economic growth that is attracting young workers from across the continent – has become a badge of this government’s failure.
What is worse, however, is the consensus from businesses and higher education providers that the cap has caused damage to the UK economy and Britain’s image abroad. I represent a central London seat that contains many of the country’s top businesses and three of its best universities. For several years now they have highlighted to me the hurdles and hoops placed in their way of bringing into the UK, or retaining, highly talented individuals whether students, post-graduate researchers or leading academics.
They cannot understand why this government has led a clampdown on precisely the type of migrant that we want to attract – the skilled student, entrepreneur or worker from natural growth markets such as China and India, or the English-speaking professional from allies such as Australia, the US and Canada. Indeed they fear we are training and educating some of the world’s brightest international students, and then discouraging them from staying here to benefit existing businesses or to set up their own enterprise.
It is a cliché that a reputation takes years to build but can be lost in an instant. However, the UK has risked losing its hard-won standing as a country that welcomes trade, investment and talent from around the world as a result of the cap.
It is for that reason I set up Conservatives for Managed Migration in March last year, a group that hopes to promote a calm, reasoned debate about immigration both within and beyond the Conservative Party. As we approach the General Election on 7 May, we have been calling on the Party to drop the idea of an undeliverable cap of numbers.
However if the Party insists on keeping this type of target-based policy in place, we have been calling for students to be removed from the net migration figure. We should also like to see a partial reinstatement of the Post-Study Work Visa, focusing on specific subjects to address skills gaps. This visa’s removal in 2012 has had a detrimental impact on the graduate jobs market, driving many of the most talented students back to their home countries when they are ready to join the workforce. It had previously enabled graduates to seek employment without having a sponsor, but now students who wish to stay in the UK after their course have to prove they have a job offer from a government-approved sponsor employer. Alternatively they can apply for independent status such as tier-one entrepreneur, but that requires a minimum £50,000 investment (something we might perhaps look to lower for talented graduates who wish to stay and develop business ideas).
To encourage English-speaking professionals, such as Kiwi accountants or American lawyers, we should like to see a Professional Mobility Programme as part of the current Tier 2 entry arrangements. Beyond that, we are really encouraging the Home Office to find a way of dealing quickly and efficiently with applications. I receive a steady stream of complaints about the Border Agency from business constituents and I believe many of the concerns about our immigration system could be addressed if we simply got to grips with the processing system.
Thankfully the government is alive to many of the concerns we have raised. Last month, for instance, HQ-UK was launched, an unashamed bid to get US tech companies to base their European headquarters in London. The government programme includes a so-called ‘concierge service’ that speeds up visa applications and gives priority border control at airports. We also have the Sirius programme from UKTI which is aimed at international graduates who want to start and grow a business in the UK. This pioneering scheme invites talented young entrepreneurs with world-class start-up ideas to get their business off the ground in the UK, helping boost Britain’s enterprise community, creating jobs and inviting foreign investment.
Immigration will not go away as an election issue over the next 51 days. So it is up to all of us here to keep steadfastly and patiently making the case that the UK’s economic future depends on our taking the right approach towards those who wish to work, study and contribute here. Flexibility in a country’s immigration system is now part and parcel of being an engaged member of the global economy. International businesses and business people, not to mention academics, expect to be able to move with relative ease between open and dynamic global cities, just as many mobile Britons would anticipate being able to work in Hong Kong, New York, Shanghai or Mumbai for a spell. Similarly, students who come here when they are young become ambassadors for the UK for the rest of their lives.
These are precious advantages we should not throw away. Simply put, those countries which restrict the flow of talent risk economic isolation in an age of globalisation.
Mark Field is MP for the Cities of London and Westminster and Founder of Conservatives for Managed Migration. This article is based on a speech delivered at a recent Power Lunch.