On legal migration, the government wants to have its cake and eat it

The best way to lower migration is to wreck the economy, the sociologist Hein de Haas has often noted. This captures a fundamental trade-off for government: how to balance managing migration levels with economic growth, well-staffed public services, and secure funding for higher education? 

Despite promise after promise to bring down numbers, they have in fact risen sharply in recent years. Indeed, the only time the government has met prime minister David Cameron’s original target to get net migration to the tens of thousands was at the height of the Covid- 19 pandemic, when travel restrictions were imposed globally and the economy was in freefall. 

The package of announcements this week is the government’s latest attempt to square the circle. With net migration reaching a new peak of 745,000 in 2022, the government has faced pressure from its backbenchers to bring numbers down. 

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But much of the recent rise is down to a post-pandemic surge in international students and overseas workers filling vacancies, especially in health and social care. Restricting these numbers could both imperil the funding model for universities and lead to a staffing crisis in the NHS and care sector. 

It would also be highly unpopular: IPPR’s research with Rob Ford found that the public strongly supported migration of health and care workers in particular. 

The solution proposed by the government is to target the dependants – the partners and children – of those who arrive. Following a previous restriction earlier this year on international students bringing dependants (excepting postgraduates on research programmes), there will now be a similar ban on the dependants of care workers. 

This is combined with a set of other measures announced in the home secretary’s five-point plan – including raising the salary threshold for the skilled worker visa to £38,700, increasing the minimum income requirement for partner visas to the same amount, and ending the 20 per cent ‘going rate’ discount for jobs on the shortage occupation list. 

The risk for the government is that these measures lead to the worst of both worlds. For the hardliners, they may well not be enough to bring down net migration. 

The government claims numbers could fall by 300,000, but this figure is misleading: it appears to be an estimate of those who arrived in the UK last year but who would not have been able to had these measures been in place. It therefore does not account for the impact of the measures on emigration – and consequently exaggerates the overall impact on net migration. 

Moreover, a breakdown of the 300,000 figure suggests that just under half is due to the ban on student dependants, which had already been announced by the government earlier this year. 

Most of the other measures are not likely to have a major impact. The vast majority of skilled worker visas – around 87 per cent, according to our estimates, based on the latest quarter of data on skilled worker visa grants and median annual gross pay – will be unaffected by the salary threshold rise, given most are currently being sponsored for health and care work, which is exempt from the increase, and many of the remaining jobs are already highly paid.i 

Scrapping the 20 per cent ‘going rate’ discount is sensible but will have little impact – less than 14 per cent of used visas for jobs on the shortage occupation list reported making use of the discount in 2021 and 2022. 

This leaves the ban on dependants for care workers, which will have a larger impact – the government estimates a reduction of 120,000 arrivals – but could risk worsening the workforce crisis in the social care sector. 

The government is banking on strong demand for the visa globally to overwhelm the limited appeal of a visa which prevent workers from bringing family members with them, but the impact is hard to forecast with any certainty. 

Plus, there are a wider set of risks attached to these new proposals. Restricting dependents could heighten the risk of care worker exploitation, the Migration Observatory has suggested, given people will be separated from support networks. Tighter rules for international students could take their toll on university finances. And the doubling of the minimum income requirement for partner visas will prevent many settled residents – as well as British citizens – from living with their loved ones. 

It could also expand the use of the 10-year family route to settlement – a fallback for people who are do not meet the criteria for family visas but whose right to a family life would otherwise be violated. As our research found earlier this year, the repeat applications, hefty visa fees, and restrictions on access to benefits on the 10-year route can have serious impacts on household finances, physical and mental health, and child wellbeing. 

So by trying to have its cake and eat it, the government may end up doing little to reduce net migration while storing up a new set of problems for social care, universities, and family life. In any case, much of this impact will not be seen by the time of the next election, given the time lag involved in the ONS’s publications of the migration statistics. 

The irony is that most forecasts expect net migration to fall in any case over the coming years as the rise in international student arrivals is followed by an increase in people leaving. 

In the longer term, a more sustainable approach to managing migration should focus on the underlying factors behind the shortages motivating employers to recruit from overseas. This means working with employers to improve conditions and invest in training the domestic workforce. 

For social care in particular, the answer is higher pay and conditions, which requires a new funding settlement for local authorities. This is a trade-off which it seems the government is currently unwilling to make. 

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