The story so far
Recent net migration figures, that is the difference between immigration and emigration of people to the UK, has been recently revised by the Office for National Statistics up to 745,000 in the year ending December 2022. The latest figures show that a total of 1.18 million people are estimated to have arrived in the UK in the year to June 2023, while 508,000 are estimated to have left, leaving the net migration figure at 672,000. The majority of immigration is recorded to be from non-EU nationals coming to study and work, particularly to fill shortages in the health and social care sectors. We must of course not disregard the UK’s humanitarian schemes for Ukraine and Hong Kong nationals that has also contributed to this unusually high net migration figure.
The UK government “remains completely committed to reducing levels of legal migration” as said in a statement from Secretary of State for the Home Department, James Cleverly. We also heard our Prime Minister say that “levels of migration are too high” and have got to come down to more “sustainable levels”. Rishi Sunak already announced policy tweaks to international students coming to the UK by restricting their family members accompanying them from January 2024, unless they are studying in post graduate research categories; but in reality this is unlikely to have a significant impact on net migration figures.
Turning to work visas, they continue to be on the increase following the launch of the Health and Care Worker visa. In the last year to June 2023, the Health and Care visa took up two thirds of overall skilled worker visas with over 120,000 visas issued. If Health and Care visas continue to increase, this could have a significant impact on immigration figures, because most are expected to stay in the UK permanently. The concern is that this route will be the most obvious target for future restrictions. This could result in salary thresholds being increased including those jobs on the current shortage occupation list for skilled workers.
It is yet to be seen what immigration policy initiatives the government will take to address their concerns over this year’s net migration figure. Given that the bulk of migration has come from students, workers and family visa routes, particular in the healthcare sector, the concern is they will directly target the skilled worker and health and care visa routes by raising minimum salaries levels for new arrivals. Such actions would be reversing the aims of the post Brexit immigration system and would risk further shortage in those sectors already suffering, in turn causing wage inflation and potential damage to the economy.
Whatever steps are taken, the government needs to exercise caution to not conflict with the continuing necessity to fill labour shortages and ensure such decisions do not decelerate the growth of the UK economy. In order for ambitions for growth and innovation to be met, it would be short sighted to think this can be achieved by reducing the flow of migrants entering the UK, particularly under a post Brexit immigration system that was set up to achieve this very goal.