Margaret Burton: Why UK needs an immediate change to regional bias of Theresa May’s ‘immigration cap’

Will future migration policy still benefit the economy?
Will future migration policy still benefit the economy?
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THE topic of immigration has a habit of attracting controversy. The 2016 EU Referendum for many demonstrated how divisive the immigration question can be. Geographic, social and generational lines were drawn as opinion polarised on some of the country’s key constitutional questions.

The questions have continued throughout the Brexit process.

How should the UK balance the benefits of immigration with the impacts that many see as being negative?

Should we control immigration purely by numbers, or should we focus on the ‘right kind’ of immigration? How do we ensure that the immigration system works for all regions of the UK?

Whatever type of Brexit we end up with, and there are a series of crucial votes in the House of Commons this week, there has never been a more important time to discuss immigration and its impact on society and the economy.

Trade agreements with Europe and other countries may result in a sustainable immigration system, as well as opening up opportunities for British citizens to live and work abroad themselves before returning with new expertise.

But while we wait for such agreements to develop, we are presented with a unique opportunity to look at the system we have in place right now, think about what the UK needs, and prepare the ground for positive change.

Together with TheCityUK, we’ve launched a research report based on discussions with high street banks, investment companies, law firms and consultancies up and down Britain to better understand the benefits of immigration for them, and challenges they face.

Some have suggested that the perspective of employers in these sectors might be limited to the high rise glass towers in London’s Square Mile.

The reality, however, is very different. We spoke to people throughout the UK, and whether it was a high street bank with branches in Yorkshire, a shared services centre in the South-East or an insurance company in Scotland – discussions ran along the same lines.

Immigration policy supports Britain’s economic growth by attracting people with skills that enhance and support Britain’s creative and progressive spirit. But clearly there is a need to ensure that the discussion of skills goes beyond immigration: it is also vital that we focus on investment in the local workforce too to ensure we provide opportunities for progression. The scales have to be balanced.

Our report – The UK’s future immigration system and access to talent – sets out nine key recommendations which we believe will help UK businesses access the right sort talent from the EU and the rest of the world after Brexit.

But these are not just recommendations for the financial services and related professional services industry – they have broad appeal.

They are relevant to all sectors and skills levels, and encompass policies relating to students, regional immigration and those who wish to settle and integrate here in Britain.

They consider how our immigration policy might interact with the education and training of British citizens and continue to promote diversity and innovation beyond Britain’s borders.

Amongst other proposals, we are calling for a new “dynamic” Shortage Occupation List that responds to real-time shortages in critical areas such as digital and cybersecurity and also responds to increases in local talent with those critical skills.

This could be applied across the economy, and would help to curb shortages in areas that firms are struggling to fill.

We also warn that simply applying the current tier two visa system without reform in a post Brexit world would not work, and could even exacerbate the current skills shortages many firms are facing.

Our recommendations also look into solving some of the more immediate disparities in the system.

The ‘immigration cap’ which was introduced by Theresa May when Home Secretary to help reduce net migration figures has resulted in anomalies whereby an application to sponsor a visa for a role in London is prioritised over an identical application in other regions, merely because of regional pay differences.

We recommend an immediate change to the way in which the ‘immigration cap’ operates to avoid regional bias and to ensure that the right skills are available wherever they are needed.

Above all, the recommendations underline the need for practical, workable solutions that can realistically change policy and benefit the whole country.

The UK is at a crossroads. It is now possible to change the immigration system for the better – to ensure it is flexible and can meet the challenges of the future and to encourage and develop talent from overseas and at home.

If the UK is to drive economic growth, we must get this right.

Margaret Burton is Global Immigration Partner at ‘big four’ accounting firm EY.