UK needs a fluid immigration policy

Author: Sarah Gogan

This article was published in The Times on 22 June 2016.

Mass immigration is unpopular in Britain.

Surveys show that the majority of UK citizens – first and second generation immigrants included – favour reducing immigration. It is consistently ranked as one of the most important issues facing the nation during the referendum on EU membership with Britons seemingly as worried about immigration from within the EU as that from outside it.

A main concern is the apparent disparity between the numbers of low skilled immigrants coming to the UK compared with the number of skilled workers such as tech entrepreneurs from outside the EU.

The commercial and cultural opportunities that the UK affords are often cited as primary drivers underpinning migration from those moving to the UK as investors, entrepreneurs and skilled workers. The City has an entrepreneurial attitude and is incredibly attractive to foreign investors. Also the UK is regarded as a global technology hub and London is the second most likely city in the world to create the next big tech giant.

The Tech City project in east London has helped this, and endorses visas for not only those skilled migrants who can already demonstrate established talent as entrepreneurs but those who also show exceptional promise. Last year, the UK government granted 69 Tier 1 exceptional talent visas for tech entrepreneurs out of the 99 that applied, and the numbers this year should be higher.

Low skilled migrants – the majority of whom are from within the EU – have historically taken up the slack in industries where jobs were hard to fill, such as in agriculture and construction. Anecdotally, they are also said to be more reliable, hardworking and have skills of which there is a shortage in the UK.

A key claim of the Vote Leave campaign is that it would allow us to “take back control of our borders” and set up a points-based system permitting only highly skilled foreign workers. But those who are familiar with UK immigration rules are aware that there has been a points-based scheme for highly skilled workers from outside the EU in the past and when the “highly skilled migrant” category was closed a few years ago other categories were introduced as points based.

Despite introducing this system for skilled migrants, the government has reaffirmed its commitment to reduce net migration by steadily restricting the immigration rules for skilled migrants, with a damaging and destabilising effect on businesses. The immigration rules for skilled workers are now unnecessarily complex, expensive and restrictive.

It is increasingly difficult to find the right people for the right jobs. Yet to compete in a globalised economy, greater attention needs to be given to improving the skills and training of those UK-born workers at the lower end of the ability range. This includes further focus on apprenticeships, vocational training and soft skills.

Migrants at an assortment of skills levels have helped the economy to grow in absolute terms. It is important for the UK to maintain a pragmatic and fluid immigration policy.

Sarah Gogan, Partner, Fladgate LLP (

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