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Boris' immigration system: did immigration advocates get it wrong in 2019?

When Boris Johnson became PM last year, there was a brief flare of discussion around the possibility that he'd be more liberal on immigration than Theresa May had been. Now we have the policy. In some ways it reacts to the advocacy that people involved in British immigration policy have been doing since the White Paper published by May's government in 2018. In most ways it doesn't. Other people have already written well about the details of the policy and its merits, and I just want to focus on one sort of second-order question: did we, the people doing that advocacy in 2018-19, play our cards wrong?

To quickly recap, May's white paper proposed a system with two kinds of work visa:

  • An employer-tied, long-term option for migrants earning (with a few exceptions) over £30,000
  • A short-term visa for lower-paid workers, not tied to a specific job or employer but limited to 12 months' stay
In the new proposals, the first visa route has been opened up slightly more: the standard salary threshold will come down to £26,500, again with some exemptions. The second route is gone, replaced by rhetoric about the need to reduce numbers and some language about "monitoring shortages", which a lot of observers are taking to mean that further down the line there may be some carve-outs to allow low-paid migrant workers in certain industries.

My view is that these changes from the December 2018 White Paper are, overall, a bad thing. Lowering the salary threshold will reduce some of the economic damage to the UK and allow more people to move, which is positive. But the reduction is not by all that much, and because of its structure - requiring individualised sponsorship for a long-term position - this visa anyway isn't going to be much use to particularly hard-hit sectors like construction, social care and agriculture.

The abandonment of the temporary work visa is also negative. The visa as proposed was not a good policy: the short time limit would have made it a bad fit for both workers and employers' needs, discouraged social integration, and created exploitation risks. But it was a relatively open system that didn't tie migrants to a particular job - a much more serious exploitation issue. In its place we have nothing, which in practice means (as Henry Sherrell argues very persuasively) that we'll get carveouts later: a further expanded special agricultural visa; other special sectoral schemes; new conditions on youth mobility visas to funnel young travellers into industries facing shortages. All of these policies are clearly worse for migrants' rights than the general temporary route that was proposed by May.

What does that have to do with advocacy efforts? The short version is that almost everybody involved in the immigration policy discourse in the UK - myself included - went nuclear on the flaws of the White Paper. In some areas this has arguably been productive: the EU Settlement Scheme, for example, hasn't been reformed on the lines we were all demanding, but the continued lobbying has meant the government is paying close attention to it and it's functioning pretty well. Mostly it's borne no fruit at all; policies on family migration and asylum seekers have been unchanged.

But when it comes to work visas it looks to me like our efforts were counterproductive. The temporary work route was not something the Home Office wanted to include in its proposals. It seemed to have been a late, vague addition in response to lobbying from other parts of government. This was pretty well understood at the time. The White Paper surrounded the proposal with assertions that the temporary visa would be strictly transitional and abolished within a few years. It was an olive branch, offered under pressure. In response, we collectively pointed to its deep problems, both the migrants' rights issues and the inadequate response to Britain's needs. It wasn't just campaigning pro-migrant groups. The Federation of Master Builders' CEO came out saying that if the "idea was supposed to be an olive branch to the business community, it leaves much to be desired."

I went to a meeting with some Treasury civil servants after the publication of my report slamming the White Paper. They didn't say this, but I would be comfortable guessing they were a team closely involved in pressuring the Home Office to add the temporary work route, to mitigate some of the damage from ending free movement. When we discussed it, one suggested that if the temporary visa had all these problems the government hadn't considered, and wasn't going to meet the business needs it was meant to cater to, it might be preferable - simpler, and cleaner - to ditch it in favour of simply lowering the salary thresholds.

We didn't agree with that, and we explained why. I don't think anyone in immigration policy advocacy made the mistake of calling for the bad proposals we have now. But in retrospect it's easy to see how we helped create them. It's not only a civil service perspective that could lead the government to regret the temporary route. If the business groups and advocates who you were trying to please have rejected your olive branch out of hand, and is simultaneously drawing heat from anti-immigration groups, then the political case for dumping it starts to seem pretty strong.

I don't have a very clear moral to draw from this. We shouldn't overstate how much government policy is actually reactive to this kind of advocacy, particularly the parts coming from think-tanks and charities - people who consider themselves 'in immigration policy', as opposed to business groups looking out for their interests. And obviously we shouldn't have responded to the White Paper proposals by pretending they were great and refraining from pointing out their serious problems. But it does seem possible to me that - possibly because retaining free movement was still, at that time, a real possibility - we criticised too heavily, and in a way that tilted the debate in a bad direction.