The contradiction may not be immediately apparent to all, given the firm stance of the Conservative government on immigration. Much of the discourse from the party, especially from Brexit-supporting MPs, leans towards reduced immigration, pointing to perceived unregulated immigration under the EU’s free movement policy as a driving factor for the departure.
Several political measures are being explored and implemented under the current government, all in an attempt to mitigate the influx of individuals into the UK from abroad. Among these is the much-debated Illegal Migration Bill, which is in progress through the House of Lords. Should this become law, individuals entering the UK unlawfully would be processed in a third-party country, such as Rwanda, foregoing their rights to apply for asylum in the UK. The forthcoming year will see measures introduced to limit the number of dependents overseas students can bring into Britain. There are murmurs of further restrictions to student visas, potentially by reducing the number of qualifying courses. Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, added to the discourse last year, voicing concerns about free movement being included in a potential free trade deal with India. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recently lent his presence to immigration officers on operations, cracking down on illegal overseas workers, in what some might see as a photo opportunity. The Conservatives are reinforcing their 2019 manifesto pledge to curb migration, a promise they must deliver on before the next General Election if they wish to satisfy their constituents concerned about migration.
The overall message appears unambiguous. The welcome mat has been withdrawn.
However, it may surprise some that despite the stern public stance, the immigration system unveiled by the Conservatives post-Brexit is arguably one of the world's most liberal. It essentially opens the gates to overseas workers.
The system awards points to individuals applying for British work permits, determined by criteria such as English language proficiency and education level. There are no caps on the number of visas issued. There's no requirement for jobs to be offered to local workers first, and salary thresholds for qualifying roles are generally below the average earnings. It's been estimated that a substantial 60% of UK employees are in roles that would qualify for a work visa. There's also a notably low refusal rate for applicants for the commonly sought Skilled Worker visa.
This accounts for why recent immigration statistics indicate that net migration last year hit an unprecedented high, a jarring revelation for those who voted for Brexit in the expectation of reduced immigration. While numbers from the EU remained consistent, non-EU immigration spiked. This increase was largely driven by a post-Covid upsurge in students, along with resettlement programmes for Afghan and Ukrainian refugees, and a new visa pathway for those fleeing Hong Kong. Despite this, it remains true that a record number of workers legally migrated to the UK, within the guidelines set by what appears to be a staunchly anti-immigration governing party.
The Government finds itself in a conundrum, trying to maintain an image of hardline immigration policy, while overseeing a more lenient system. Further complicating matters is the fact that the UK economy has a growing reliance on migrants, a reality the Government is well aware of.
Persistent high levels of job vacancies across the UK, which domestic workers cannot sufficiently fill, present a problem. The country lacks enough local workers prepared and able to fill all the available roles. Without this workforce, businesses lose productivity. This is why the government has chosen to focus on international students and their dependents, rather than overseas workers. It's a tactical move intended to show they are attuned to their core voters' concerns, while preserving economic stability and business interests.
Additionally, demographic changes pose a challenge for the foreseeable future. The UK population, like most developed Western nations, is ageing. The UK birth rate has dipped to a record low, with no apparent reversal in sight. Economies require an influx of youthful workforce to thrive, to invigorate the system with fresh ideas, and to contribute taxes that help support an ageing population.
Immigration has always been a driving force for productivity, and as the British population continues to age, the case for maintaining a degree of openness to immigration becomes more compelling. The choice will increasingly be between higher birth rates or more migrants, and with UK birth rates unlikely to rise, the answer seems clear.
Yash Dubal is a visa and immigration expert and director of A Y & J Solicitors, a London-based legal business which helps individuals and businesses negotiate the British immigration system. He came to the UK from India in 2003 with only £1500 and worked to build a successful business based on the principles of honesty, professionalism, reliability, helpfulness, and approachability. His law firm was awarded the title of ‘Best Immigration Law Firm’ in 2018.