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How do we make immigration policy work for science and engineering?

05 Dec 2018

Deputy Director Naomi Weir on CaSE’s new immigration policy briefing and the need to develop a migration system that works for science and engineering.

Immigration is a hot topic. And, to date, the immigration white paper that will set out the basis for migration for EEA nationals, and beyond, following Brexit has been a hot potato; passed from one Home Secretary and Immigration Minister to the next, leaked to the press before it was due last autumn, then via the Migration Advisory Committee and Number 10.

The current immigration system is complex and there are many misconceptions about it. So with a view to the white paper appearing, this week we published a new immigration briefing summarizing how the current non-EEA system works and reviews the MAC recommendations against our criteria for a system that supports science and engineering. It sets out the pressure points for our sector and presents our proposals for a new system to support informed scrutiny of the white paper and Government’s future plans for immigration, now expected after Parliament votes on Brexit next week. We will see.

Since we first expected the white paper in October last year, the evidence base has developed. Some of this work was drawn together in recent Migration Advisory Committee reports, work by parliamentary committees, as well as from the sector, including CaSE. Our policy review from March sets out the types of people and types of movement essential for research and innovation and principles that should be central to any new system if it’s to support a thriving environment for science and engineering in the UK. So, there is no lack of evidence or creative proposals.

However, we’ve also seen political mixed-messages and lack of transparency. This was typified in the drama over the Tier 2 cap in the first half of this year. Thankfully, the cap has rarely been met. However, in the first six months of this year it was exceeded each month resulting in over 14,000 eligible applications being refused by the Home Office. This meant that skilled individuals, meeting all visa requirements, who have been offered a job by an organisation willing to sponsor them after undertaking a recruitment process that included checking if any UK residents were suitable for the role, were simply turned away. Some might call them the brightest and best.

CaSE has long campaigned for this policy to be abolished. And when the refusals began in December 2017, CaSE worked with MPs to ask Parliamentary Questions to understand the scale of refusals by occupation. Following rebuttal, we resorted to an FOI request. We were the first to obtain the data, publishing it with cross-party political support and kick starting an outcry against the policy. After significant pressure from CaSE and others the policy was changed, removing doctors and nurses from counting towards the cap, leaving room for other skilled workers.

The damage to the UK’s reputation should not be underestimated.  It affected companies’ productivity and ability to deliver on projects, affected public services and, now there are thousands of skilled workers around the world who are walking evidence that the UK is unwelcoming to talent from overseas. This drama is not isolated to policies on the Tier 2 cap. We’ve seen the national embarrassment of turning away global experts due to speak at conferences, refusing researchers indefinite leave to remain due to periods out of the country on UK funded research projects, and more. It is difficult to believe the Government saying they will welcome the brightest and best in future when they’re already turning them away in the thousands.

I raise the Tier 2 issue in depth for two reasons. First, it is an example of damaging, disproportionate policy. And second, it is a case study of lack of transparency from the Home Office which contributes to distrust of the Government on immigration. These factors shape my concerns about the forthcoming white paper and must be addressed if we’re to end up with reasonable proposals and a viable future migration system that supports science and engineering, and indeed the UK. I’ll take each in turn.

It would be naive to say that coming up with a new immigration system is politically or practically straightforward. That is why we’ve been expecting the forthcoming white paper since last October. It will always be a balancing act. Which is why one of the key principles by which we think any migration system should be measured is whether it is proportionate. Are the rules proportionate to risk? Are the restrictions proportionate to national interest? Is the cost proportionate for individuals, employers and the UK public purse?

A real risk in the current political climate is that we will end up with a system that is overly restrictive as a reaction to free movement and to ‘prove a point’ to an important but small section of Parliament and the public. Along with many aspects of public discourse at present, the options are often presented as being one extreme or the other. That might work for headlines, but it does not work for prudent policy making.

From the outset our members have been clear that extending the current non-EEA migration system to encompass all migration would introduce substantial barriers to research and innovation. There are many other creative options that could meet some of the stated objectives of the Government and address some of the concerns raised by some of the public, while also taking into account the nuance in public opinion, the real impact choices on immigration will have on the economy, on businesses, on communities, on individuals and families, and on research and innovation too.

With the Prime Minister affirming that the UK will have a single migration system in future we want to ensure that the starting point for that new single system isn’t the current non-EEA system. Instead, the Home Office should explore what building a system using the new, digital, EEA settlement scheme as a starting point could look like. Such a system could be first introduced to EEA migrants, and then, once the system is proven, rolled out with trade partners, Commonwealth countries and to all, resulting in a single system that is fit for the future.

It has been a long time coming but, with so much at stake, I truly hope that the forthcoming White Paper on immigration will have been worth the wait. It will not be a people pleasing White Paper. Its unlikely that anyone will be 100 per cent happy. But that should not be the objective of a future immigration system. There are difficult decisions to be made. But they must be made in light of evidence, including evidence on the nuance of public opinion, and must result in a proportionate new system.

This isn’t something that can be sorted out down the line. Now is a unique moment when we can introduce and test a new system without reducing security or increasing risk. Introducing a new, forward looking, light touch system that capitalises on capabilities afforded by new technology, would only be increasing control and security for migration of EEA nationals compared to our current state of free movement. Copying across the current system with some tweaks now with a view to doing something for all later would be an error. This is an opportunity we can’t afford to miss. The potential gains of showing political leadership and introducing a new digital system that is fit for the future could result in a system that in the long-term costs less to run, improves control of our borders, is an attractive feature for doing business in the UK, and restores confidence in the UK as an outward looking nation.

Secondly, and more briefly, on transparency. In the past we have worked well with the Home Office, seeing productive policy change as a result. But in recent years we’ve seen a change tone. For instance, in 2015 the tier 2 cap was reached, the Home Office provided the refusal figures by standard occupational code when requested in response to a Parliamentary Question. Since December 2017, similar questions were given unsatisfactory answers. Even following a letter from the Chair of the Parliamentary Procedures Committee, the Home Office continued to refuse to provide Parliament with the figures when asked, hence we resorted to an FOI. It is concerning that the Government were reluctant to release this data, and that they would provide data through an FOI that they were not willing to provide to Parliament. I’ve written at greater length on this before and recent Parliamentary events on Brexit are macro examples of the same issue.

Transparency is essential for accountability to the public and to Parliament. And to have any hope of informed debate and policies we need appropriate access to this kind of information. The lack of transparency must be addressed both to support the vital activity of Parliamentary scrutiny of the white paper and in the lead up to and during the passage of any subsequent legislation, and if the resulting system is to support consensus building across fractured groups and attract support from the public and employers alike.

The briefing we’ve produced today is our latest contribution. The current non-EEA system is so complex, and there has been lack of transparency about how it currently works. Anticipating that the white paper may propose a system that looks a lot like an extension of the current system with some changes in line with recommendations from the MAC, our briefing summarises how the current non-EEA system works and reviews the MAC recommendations against our criteria of a system that supports science and engineering, setting out the pressure points for our sector and presenting our proposals for a new system.

We hope that it will help to inform and support those contributing to debate, discussion and scrutiny of the white paper, including parliamentarians and the media, as well as the sector and the public. If it is, as we fear, an extension of the non-EEA system to cover all migration, we and others who since the referendum result have stated the damage of doing so, must continue to speak up so that the UK seizes the opportunity for a fresh start in immigration policy. 

You can read the accompanying press release on CaSE’s new immigration briefing

A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of ‘Science and Parliament’, published by the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee.