For a few years after the 2016 Brexit referendum promised that Britain would “take back control” of its borders, immigration faded as a public concern. Now, with the government not only struggling to control “illegal” migrants crossing the Channel in small boats, but facing a rise in net migration to record levels, the subject has moved back into the top three issues cited by voters. It is opening new faultlines in a Conservative party transfixed by possible electoral defeat next year — and prompting increasingly inflammatory language from its right wing.
With some sectors crying out for workers, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has tried to win public acquiescence to legal immigration by getting tough on the illegal kind, making “stopping the boats” one of his five pledges for 2023. As rising numbers of cross-channel migrants have defied efforts to rein them in, Downing Street has given home secretary Suella Braverman licence to adopt increasingly extreme methods and language. She is pushing through a bill that would bar almost anyone entering Britain on small boats or without prior permission from claiming asylum. The Archbishop of Canterbury has called it “morally unacceptable”.
That makes it all the trickier for the government that figures on Thursday are expected to show net migration jumped last year, perhaps to more than 700,000. Though the numbers exceed earlier expectations, this is the result of political choices: to admit people fleeing from Afghanistan, Hong Kong and Ukraine, to encourage international student admissions, and to leave employers largely free to fill highly paid jobs from overseas, while limiting low-paid immigration. The government also opened up worker visas to help plug recruitment gaps in the NHS and social care.
The numbers are set to come down, as some temporary factors recede. Without changes in policy, however, they will stay relatively high — creating acute dilemmas for a government also trying to boost growth, cut inflation and mend services.
It should continue to allow migration through visa programmes where there is a strong economic and strategic case. Though the government is banning international non-PhD students from bringing family members with them, it would be wrong to place broader curbs on international students, who bring skills and create value.
As long as NHS staff shortages remain acute, foreign workers will be vital, though Britain also needs to increase domestic training of health staff and start repairing the past decade’s falls in real wages. It would be better to offer competitive wages to UK workers to do care jobs — which many Britons say they would do if the pay were better — but governments have repeatedly ducked reforms to ensure the sector is properly funded.
If the Conservatives are serious about shifting the UK economy away from a “low-wage, low-skill” model, the government has to resist calls from sectors such as hospitality to expand the shortage occupation list. These sectors will need, over time, to adjust — as the road haulage industry has begun to do.
Given public concerns, however — whipped up in part by the political right — for Sunak to be able to go even this far in bringing in key workers, he will need to gain voters’ consent. That means finding ways to control small boats, ideally through co-operation rather than confrontation with EU neighbours, and showing that his government has a grip on overall immigration numbers. He needs to be more open in making the case for migrants who bring skills and fill holes in services. And he must rein in alarmist talk by ministers which, by blurring the line between legal and illegal migrants, threatens to poison the case for any immigration at all.