Immigration takes centre stage again with the general election around the corner. Jackie Penlington takes a closer look at what each Party is proposing in their manifestos and what impact these policies may have on UK businesses.
The headliner from the Conservatives is a re-commitment to David Cameron’s earlier pledge in 2010 to bring down annual net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. To give some perspective on this target, the latest figures published by the Office of National Statistics show that annual net migration is currently at around 248,000.
The suggestion from the Tories is that the skilled migration route (Tier 2 sponsorship) is a way for UK businesses to avoid upskilling the British workforce. The pledges in their manifesto would significantly increase the (already substantial) costs of a UK company sponsoring a migrant worker by doubling the Immigration Skills Charge to £2,000 per year and increasing the Immigration Health Surcharge payment.
The Conservatives also want to make it more difficult for overseas students to stay in the UK once they have graduated and would generally expect them to leave at the end of their course. It’s easy to see how this may discourage overseas students from coming to the UK in the first place and the impact this could have on both the educational sector through loss of revenue and UK companies who wish to recruit high calibre graduates.
The Tories also appear to be heading down the ‘hard-line’ Brexit route though, at this stage, it’s still unclear what rights would be guaranteed for EEA nationals currently in the UK and how the Tories actually intend to ‘reduce and control’ the number coming from the EU. Clearly this will be troubling for those UK businesses which rely heavily on EU workers as we have to presume that, post-Brexit, EU nationals would be subject to immigration control and would need a UK visa to work here.
The immigration policies in the Tory manifesto appear to be dictated by the aim of drastically reducing annual net migration figures with the real potential of detriment to the UK economy. In particular, by adopting a hard line on Brexit and increasing the costs of employing migrant workers, the Conservative party are likely to make it more difficult or even impossible for some UK companies to access the skills they need in their workplace.
Only the other week, a detailed report by Global Future, an independent think tank, suggested that net migration in excess of 200, 000 was required for the long-term financial success of the UK as our ageing population and low productivity growth were among the factors that made immigration an “essential ingredient” for a successful economy. By constructing their immigration policies to serve the pledge to reduce annual net migration, the Tories are putting on their own strait jacket.
In contrast to the Tories, the Labour party would “immediately guarantee existing rights for all EU nationals living in Britain” and would secure reciprocal rights for UK citizens living in the EU.
There were reports that the Labour manifesto was ‘beefed up’ on immigration ahead of publication for the manifesto to confirm that free movement will end when the UK exits the EU. Anticipating the post-Brexit world, the manifesto states that the UK will need a new migration management system and that Labour would work with businesses and trade unions to identify “specific labour and skills shortages to develop a new system based on economic need”.
There isn’t great detail in the manifesto about how any new immigration system would be structured though it does make a point of valuing the economic and social contributions made by immigrants to the UK.
Interestingly, a recently leaked policy paper shows that Labour may be considering the roll-out of a visa scheme for low skilled, unskilled and seasonal workers in the UK. This all appears to suggest that Labour may adopt a more flexible approach in relation to immigration which could be helpful for UK plc.
The Liberal Democrats will give the British public a second bite of the apple with its pledge that any Brexit deal would be put to the British people for a vote with the option of remaining in the EU included.
There is an emphasis on protecting the rights of EU citizens already in the UK with reciprocal provisions for UK citizens in the EU. They would also re-introduce post-study work visas for graduates in science and engineering disciplines.
Unsurprisingly, UKIP’s manifesto pledges to abolish the free movement of EEA nationals to the UK.
In the post-Brexit landscape, it proposes to guarantee the rights of ‘law-abiding EU citizens’ to stay indefinitely though those who entered after 29 March 2017 (the date that Article 50 was triggered) would have no automatic right to stay.
UKIP wants to set up a new Australian style points based system and work permit system and set a target to reduce net migration to zero over a 5-year period. The party would also introduce a moratorium on unskilled and low-skilled immigration for the 5-year period after leaving the EU.
It’s a shame that the general election hasn’t triggered a more scrutinised debate over immigration and, in particular, any forceful challenge to the general assumption that immigration is a bad thing for the UK.
For UK companies and their HR teams, it is even more crucial now that they are planning for their long-term recruitment strategies, especially those that rely heavily on an EU workforce.
For those businesses which don’t currently sponsor migrants under the Tier 2 sponsored regime, they will need to consider whether they need to become Tier 2 sponsors to fill the skills shortage.
It’s also important for HR teams not to discount the level of stress and uncertainty that Brexit and the general election may be causing for some of their employees. Companies may wish to look at how they can support their employees affected, both in terms of their mental wellbeing and the practical support that could be offered for immigration applications.
Article first published in HRreview, June 2017