With little fanfare, one of the defining issues of the Brexit debate – the free movement of people within the EU – was finally voted on last month. The UK Government’s plan to replace free movement with a new points-based immigration system was given initial approval on May 18, with MPs supporting the bill by 351 votes to 252.
The 2020 Immigration Bill slipped under the radar because of the understandable political focus on the coronavirus crisis, but the recent debate reflected the challenge of adapting legislation drawn up before the last election to the shifting political landscape.
Labour argued that the Bill will risk the UK “not being able to fill the desperately needed roles for trained nurses and care home workers at the very moment when we rely on the NHS most”, while Home Secretary Priti Patel tried to reassure the country that the Government’s new plans “will attract people we need to drive our country through the recovery stage of coronavirus”.
Set to be introduced on January 1, 2021, the Bill will firstly require EU citizens on the continent to apply for visas to work in the UK, much as people outside Europe currently do. A second significant change will be the increased skills focus of UK work visas. The most common of these, the “skilled” visa, has had its salary requirements lowered from £30,000 to £25,600, but it now requires prospective migrants to demonstrate that they can speak English and that they have a minimum job-related skill level equivalent to A-level. People with lower salary job offers, though no lower than £20,480, may still have a route to the UK if they can secure additional “points” with a relevant PhD or with a job in a “shortage occupation”.
This increased emphasis on skills results from the Government’s desire to reduce the number of low-skilled migrants coming from Europe. “We will no longer have the routes for cheap, low-skilled labour that obviously has dominated immigration and our labour market for far too long in this country,” Patel has said.
Fr Graziano Battistella, an associate professor of moral theology and migration at the Loyola School of Theology in Manila, takes issue with this sharp distinction between skilled and unskilled labour. Fr Battistella told the Catholic Herald that “many occupations, which require undeniable skills, are denied such definition and yet are so precious, as demonstrated by the recent Covid-19 crisis.”
The Government still has some flexibility regarding the migrants it needs due to the pandemic, since it can grant more “short-term work” visas for specific sectors, which come without the same blanket requirements, and it can expand its list of “shortage occupations”. But Fr Battistella sees a deeper problem in the “predatory character” of an immigration policy designed solely around the needs of the host country, since it ends up “depriving countries of origin of the contribution of their skilled persons”.
Defenders of the new focus on skills might point out that it is part of a reasonable desire to improve the integration of migrants. On the specific issue of language conditions, Dr Carole Murphy, a migration expert at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, told the Herald that English speaking skills are “crucial in terms of integration, in terms of getting to know people, in terms of trying to understand the culture”, though she also said that the government should be increasing its language tuition provision for migrants already in the UK.
The focus of the debate, however, has been on the emerging needs of the UK economy amidst the coronavirus crisis. During this debate, various sectors have called on the Government to use its available flexibility to help address their internal labour shortages. Danny Mortimer, the chief executive of NHS Employers, has argued that the Government needs to provide “a route to migration” for those who could work in social care. “Care workers do not earn above the Government’s proposed £25,600 salary threshold and, despite one in 11 posts being unfilled, social care is not classed as a shortage occupation,” he said.
The coronavirus crisis has also highlighted the UK’s reliance on seasonal agricultural labourers from abroad, with many unable to reach the country during lockdown. Charter flights have managed to bring some workers from Central and Eastern Europe, and agencies have recruited many UK workers who lack previous experience on a farm; but there remain significant labour shortages in the sector.
Before the pandemic, the Government promised to expand its seasonal agricultural visa pilot scheme from 2,500 workers to 10,000 by the time free movement ends. But this was widely derided by the agricultural sector, which already had staff shortages of 10-20 per cent despite employing over 80,000 non-UK seasonal agricultural workers every year. The National Farmers Union has, therefore, called on the government to greatly increase its pilot scheme for seasonal agricultural labour on fruit, veg and flower farms.
The new pandemic-related labour shortages in this sector may play into the hands of human traffickers. The campaign group Stop the Traffik have said that the coronavirus crisis will intensify the efforts of gangs to traffic new people into the country and will worsen the conditions of current victims of labour exploitation in the UK.
Dr Pia Jolliffe, a migration expert from the Las Casas Institute at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford, told the Herald that “labour shortages due to the corona pandemic and difficulties in free travel could create the conditions in which more exploitation can occur”. Almost half of the trafficking victims in the agricultural sector already come from Europe, typically Romania, Bulgaria and Lithuania.
Dr Carole Murphy agreed that we will probably see “more trafficking of vulnerable migrants into the UK because of restrictions on the border”, but she sees this as a wider problem of UK immigration policy failing to “cohere” with its commitments on human trafficking. Dr Murphy said that the inadequate financial, legal and emotional support given to these victims when they claim for asylum provided “no recognition of the trauma encountered by these people”.
Bishop Paul McAleenan, the lead bishop for migration and asylum, has drawn attention to the plight of these asylum seekers during the pandemic and has asked the Government “not to neglect the well-being of migrants and refugees when thinking about Covid-19.” Bishop McAleenan called on the Government to release people currently held in immigration detention centres and to grant temporary “leave to remain” to those with insecure immigration status.
Whilst the Bill does not directly affect asylum law itself, there will still probably be more political pressure on the system in 2021, with increased migrant crossings during the pandemic, decreased deportations, a new pool of asylum claims from European citizens and the end of certain EU agreements relating to refugees.
Past Labour and Conservative administrations have sought to assuage tensions around migration by creating an increasingly strict asylum system, as epitomised by the Windrush scandal, which resulted from an “ambitious but deliverable” deportation target of “12,800 enforced returns in 2017-18”. It remains to be seen whether the end to free movement amidst the pandemic will simply amplify problems within the asylum system, or if a points-based immigration policy will make it easier to accept more asylum seekers. It also remains to be seen whether the new points system can help fulfil the Government’s promise to “drive our country through the recovery stage of coronavirus”; or whether it will merely exacerbate labour shortages.
Thomas Caddick is a news writer for the Catholic Herald
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