In her closing speech to the 2022 Conservative party conference in Birmingham, prime minister Liz Truss hit out at “the enemies of enterprise” while insisting she was aligned with her chancellor in their plan for growth.
However the conference ended with many doubting whether she is in complete lockstep with her home secretary when it comes to work-related immigration.
“Migration, in particular skilled and high-skilled migration, plays an important role in economic growth, productivity, and innovation,” reads the Growth Plan presented by the chancellor of the exchequer to Parliament.
But Suella Braverman appears to have rather different priorities than her PM’s new-found zeal for “growth, growth, growth.”
“Don’t get me started on the lawyers, and I am a recovering lawyer,” our new home secretary told the Conservative party conference.
Lawyers are used to a bashing from Conservative home secretaries. Especially us immigration lawyers.
But the former attorney general’s bleak view of the legal profession and immigration sounded clunky and out of touch – especially with the realities of UK employers facing skills shortages across many sectors.
Liz Truss appears to have recognised the importance of immigration for her plan for growth, with pre-conference reports of an expanded shortage occupation list to facilitate Skilled Worker visas as well as lifting caps on seasonal workers.
Yet the home secretary, while complaining of divisions in her party over taxation and benefits, appeared to open up yet more rifts within her party when it comes to immigration.
Reaching for the yardstick her predecessors couldn’t measure up to she revived the Tory pledge to reduce net migration to tens of thousands – a target abandoned by Boris Johnson after nearly a decade of Conservative governments failing to meet it.
Reducing net immigration, rather than facilitating filling labour shortages would be out of step with public opinion too.
An Ipsos/British Future opinion poll published this week revealed public support for reducing UK immigration has hit its lowest level since the tracker survey began in 2015.
While 42% want immigration reduced, more prefer it not to be reduced – either current levels (26%) or increasing (24%).
Despite immigration often being framed as a problem by certain politicians and media, the poll found that the trend has been for more people to believe that immigration has had a positive effect on Britain (46% now) than a negative effect (now 29%).
Yet Suella Braverman told a fringe conference meeting that to achieve the goal of lowering immigration that eluded her predecessors she would “definitely substantially reduce the number of students, the number of work visas and in particular the number of dependants on those sorts of visas.”
Net migration to Britain totalled 239,000 in the latest ONS figures for the year to June 2021. It is debatable whether students and their dependants should be counted in net migration figures unless they stay on after the degree.
Post-pandemic, as you’d expect, student numbers are up. In the year ending June 2022, 486,868 sponsored study visas were granted, including dependants. The government’s target is to grow education exports to £35 billion by 2030 and they appear to be on course.
What Braverman also failed to mention this week is that dependants cannot come to the UK with those on ordinary student visas.
Only those on post-graduate and government-sponsored higher education courses can bring dependants to the UK – exactly the kind of highly skilled talent that stay and work in high growth firms on graduate and other work visas.
If the home secretary chooses to target dependants it would run against the advice of the influential Migration Advisory Committee.
The cross-party expert committee has found that dependants tend to be young, skilled and contribute to the UK economy (often in occupations where it’s harder to sponsor staff).
It’s only partners and children that can come to the UK as dependants on certain work and student visas. It is now heartbreakingly difficult to bring an elderly parent to the UK.
The Growth Plan presented to parliament insists: “the government is committed to ensuring the immigration system works for business and encourages highly skilled people and high growth businesses to choose to locate and invest in the UK. This has included the introduction of Global Talent, High Potential Individual, Scale-up Worker and Global Business Mobility visa routes.”
If these new work immigration routes attract international talent to Britain it’s because most include the possibility of workers settling with families.
The Australian points-based system lauded by successive previous Conservative governments as it sounds tough actually affords those workers on it a quicker, easier route to settlement than the UK’s so-called post-Brexit points system does.
Giving workers precarious temporary status without being able to bring their family will not attract the same calibre of staff and leaves them open to the abuses of modern day slavery – also something that the new Home Secretary appeared very sceptical about.
“We mustn’t forget how to do things for ourselves,” the home secretary told the conference, appearing totally oblivious to current labour shortfalls including 40,000 nurses and 100,000 HGV drivers. She repeatedly attacked what she called “low-skilled foreign workers” (many of whom we’d called “key workers” and applauded during the pandemic.)
In an interview in the Spectator magazine, the Home Secretary who earlier accused some colleagues of a “coup” against the Prime Minister insisted: “I don’t think that we need to air our dirty linen in public.”
She then proceeded to claim that the trade deal Liz Truss wants to conclude with India this month means: “an open borders migration policy with India.” It doesn’t. However, the Indian government would like to see more work and study visas as part of a deal, making the Home Secretary’s intervention rather undermining for a PM in need of good news post-Brexit trade deals.
The rift between Number 10 and the Home Secretary over the future of work immigration has now deteriorated to the extent that The Independent reported business leaders being told to put their case for more access to staff from abroad to the business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, or to Nadhim Zahawi, the Cabinet Office minister.
The paper speculates that such lobbying may be to prepare the ground for the PM to overrule the Home Secretary, who is supposed to be in charge of a review of the work visa system.
All this uncertainty is less than helpful for small employers. Tina McKenzie, policy chair at the Federation of Small Businesses, pointed out: “small businesses need joined-up thinking from the government on immigration, to bring in policies that will help them employ global talent as they have been struggling with widespread labour shortages.”
Perhaps the “enemies of enterprise” – the “anti-growth coalition” that the Prime Minister railed at were not all outside Birmingham’s International Convention Centre last week.
It seems that there are clear divisions in Government on continuing the trends in facilitating work visas to make up for the loss of freedom of movement from Europe. With businesses facing uncertainties associated with higher interest rates and energy bills, some certainties when it comes to filling labour shortages would definitely be welcome.