Business against Limits on Immigration

The Home Office has been running a consultation on non-EU immigration with interested parties, chiefly business. This post is a slightly edited version sent in by Prosyma Research Ltd, sponsor of Britain Watch.

Of particular salience is the current agitation by some FTSE businesses and the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, for the limits to be abandoned, in direct contravention of the Conservatives’ manifesto promises and the Coalition agreement.  See section 2 below – Jobs and Economy – for the refutation of the business case for this.

In this connection, to get a sense of proportion about the government’s present 24,000 cap on “highly skilled” non-EU immigrants (excluding dependants) from May until next April, it should be noted that total science and technology graduate recruitment by major companies is well under 30,000 per annum.

1          Needs and fears of the British people

The UK needs an immigration system which puts the needs and allays the fears of the British people before every other need, including the expressed needs of some sections of the business community.

1.1       As someone who has been engaged in the immigration issue for a very long time, and a candidate in the recent general election, I have first-hand evidence of the real fears that the overwhelming majority of British people have about the continued massive levels of immigration, both EU and non-EU.  The chief fear is not so much economic, though the effects on jobs is a major concern (see below 2), but a fear of their becoming a minority in their own country – a fear which is justified by the National Statistical Office and other projections – and our country thus being changed beyond all recognition.

1.2       This Home Office consultation is in large part a response by the present Conservative-led government to these fears.  Any system of immigration control which results from this and other consultations will thus fail if it does not visibly reduce immigration to 10,000s rather than 100,000s in the Prime-Minister’s words.  This factor 10 reduction should take precedence over all other considerations.

1.3       In this connection it is important to see that the English-speaking comparator countries used in the consultation briefing are totally different from the UK in population density.  At 1050 people per square mile, England (where 90+% of non-EU immigration is found) with nearly 53 million people, is the most densely populated country in the Western world and the sense of congestion and people pressure is palpable.  Australia 7, Canada 8, New Zealand 40, USA 84 people per square mile are in a different league altogether even when inhospitable land areas are excluded.

In this connection it is relevant that the USA, an avowedly immigrant-seeking country with large open spaces, set a limit of 1.4 immigrants per thousand of the resident population under the National Origins Act 1924.  Current (2009) levels of non-EU immigration into Britain are near 6 per thousand.

2          Jobs and the Economy

The number one need of the British people is for jobs which they can access at reasonable rates of pay.  Present unemployment is over 2.5 million, of which over one million are aged between 16 and 24.  Though not separately identified, there is concealed unemployment among graduates of the last few years – even those with science, engineering and technology (SET) qualifications.  Such people are taking low level clerical, retail and hotel work while they search for work in keeping with their qualifications.  There is also an unprecedented high demand from British students for post-graduate training or research jobs – another indicator of concealed unemployment.  Allowing people to come in to look for work on the strength of a vague “highly skilled” definition (see 2.2) – the so-called Tier 1 category – is insane with the present levels of unemployment and deeply discouraging to our own graduates.

2.1       Myth of skills shortage

In my view, born of my 40+ years’ experience in business and academia, the shortage of graduate level people except possibly in one or two very specific areas is a myth.

What we do find is that many employers in the SME sector will not pay graduate starting salaries of more than £15-20,000 though these are acceptable to Indian sub-continent graduates, where salaries of £2-3,000 are normal.  This explains a good deal of recruitment of non-EU graduate staff from that geographical area, which has in fact kept salaries down even among the large corporate SET employers.

2.2       Universities’ response to skill shortages

From time to time, markets change in response to newly available technologies and products.  Universities and colleges are extremely quick to respond to perceived labour-market shortages arising from new technological developments.  Such shortages are very short term – typically 2-3 years.  Examples include computer scientists and mathematicians in the 1970s, software engineers and designers in the mid-1990s, environmental specialists in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and currently nuclear engineering graduates for the expected new-build programme.

2.3       Home Office definitions of “highly skilled”

As someone who has been involved in these areas, either in business or as Professor of manufacture and engineering, I do not accept that the present Home Office definitions of “highly skilled” are valid, basically because they do not adequately encompass working experience and knowledge of the English language in all three of its required forms: speaking standard English, writing, colloquial speaking (for jobs on industrial plant for instance).  For example a PhD degree is not a useful qualification on its own for instance – it all depends on the subject matter, the supervisor and the university department where it was obtained – and more important even than this – are PhDs actually needed outside the research and development departments of a relatively small number of companies?

What most companies actually need are mainly all-rounders – people who can move from function to function as requirements change – production, research, sales, design.  In my experience, this all-round capacity is exactly what Asian and Middle-East graduates come to the UK to acquire – not bring.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the medical sector.  This year there are 1600 overseas applicants (compared with 500 last year) for post-graduate doctor training jobs in direct competition with our own medical graduate students.  Unnamed health service officials in the Times report (25 September) say that “they cannot discriminate on grounds of national origin”.  If true, this is simply insane.  The NHS should be providing training posts for British citizens, not the whole of the world.  British people want to be attended by British doctors, just as people prefer their own nationality in every other country in the world.

But are these officials correct?  Even as the immigration rules stand now, jobs have to be held open for British applicants for at least three months.  Instead of hiding behind an absurd interpretation of the rules, NHS officials should be doing their level best to ensure that British students come first.

3          Steps to take

The Tier 1 category should be totally abolished.  Where firms (under Tier 2) including the NHS and the universities are allowed to bring people in, it must be for a specific job, for a specific time not exceeding three years, during which time the firm must identify and train British replacements and then the foreign job holder returns home.

In assessing its “need”, the Home Office should ensure that the job(s) a firm seeks to fill should have been advertised at “fully British competitive rates of pay” – no undercutting (see 2.1 above) should be allowed.

With these stipulations, it is doubtful if firms will be able to justify more than a few thousand non-EU recruitments a year – well within the present government’s temporary cap – but plenty to fill specific posts.

British firms must sponsor British young people through combined training and work placements with universities and colleges of further education.  While a few large firms such as BT and Rolls Royce are doing this, in general British firms must do more to secure our national pool of skilled labour.

Finally, as a condition for admission to the UK it must be clear that this is not a route to settlement or citizenship.  The job holder must return home at the end of the permitted time (maximum 3 years).

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One Response to “Business against Limits on Immigration”

  1. Chas Smith says:

    Yes clear common sense so no goverment will listen or act.

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