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UK migration reforms will not end lower pay for foreign workers, says top policy adviser

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The UK government’s top migration adviser has accused ministers of taking a “do as I say, not as I do attitude” by forcing the private sector to pay high wages for skilled workers, while allowing the public sector to recruit overseas staff on rock bottom salaries.

Brian Bell, chair of the Migration Advisory Committee, said in an interview with the Financial Times that there was a growing disconnect between the message the government was giving employers — to train and pay British workers better before looking to hire overseas — and its own approach in publicly-funded sectors.

“There is now increasingly a ‘do as I say, not as I do, attitude’,” Bell said, referring to the government’s recent announcement to raise the salary threshold for jobs that are eligible for a “skilled worker visa” from £26,200 to £38,700. 

A separate carve-out allows health and social care employers to continue hiring overseas staff at an hourly rate of £10.75, and the education sector to recruit from abroad at the minimum rate for their qualification.

The government is signalling “that if you’re the NHS, education or social care — all the bits that are publicly funded — you can keep on paying the minimum and you don’t have to worry about training British workers,” Bell said. “If you actually care about net migration, pay social care workers properly.”

Bell was commenting on a package of measures announced by home secretary James Cleverly last month aimed at reducing UK net migration, which reached a record high of 745,000 in 2022.

The measures included raising the minimum salary threshold for skilled workers and family visas, banning care workers from bringing dependants, and initiating a review of the “graduate route”, which allows foreign students to work in the UK for two years after graduation. 

But Bell said that while these measures would force private sector employers to pay higher salaries to migrants filling certain roles, the government was in practice tilting the immigration system heavily towards low wage work. This was because health and care now accounted for such a high proportion of visas issued. 

Even before the government expanded its main work-related visa route to encompass entry-level care workers in 2022, the MAC had been concerned that NHS trusts were allowed to hire migrant nurses on the bottom of the national pay scale, with data suggesting they were being paid lower than their British counterparts. 

“Our worry has always been there’s a bit of exploitation going on there . . . but realistically, no government has ever been willing to change that,” he said, noting the extra cost for the NHS.

The threshold for migrant health and care workers will rise in April, when the UK’s statutory minimum wage is set to rise by 9.8 per cent, from £10.42 to £11.44 an hour. 

“My real worry is that they raise the threshold for care workers in the skilled worker route to exactly match the minimum wage,” Bell said, noting it was above the minimum wage today. “I would have real concerns that we might be moving to a world where we explicitly say within the immigration system that these are minimum wage workers.”

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has repeatedly boasted to international investors that the UK offers “the most competitive visa regime for highly skilled international talent”. But he is now tightening visa rules with the aim of cutting net migration to the UK by some 300,000 a year. 

New curbs preventing students and care workers bringing family to the UK with them are at the core of the clampdown, but Bell said the increased salary thresholds for private sector recruitment would make it impossible for some employers to use the visa system. 

Visa applications from the private sector were already trending down as vacancies decreased, Bell said — while in health and care, they continued to rise and now accounted for some three quarters of all skilled worker visas. 

“The system is increasingly a health and social care system . . . Even if you want to reduce net migration, you won’t have much effect focusing on the private sector,” he said. 

Bell, who has a two-day a week paid role as chair of the MAC, the independent group which advises ministers on immigration policy, said he feared the government’s rhetoric on migration was sometimes “simplistic”, and ministers failed to properly examine the wider impacts of policy changes. 

Challenging ministers to be honest about the effects of possible changes to the immigration system on the university sector, he said: “Should we be harming one of our few internationally competitive industries? Perhaps we should, but let’s be clear that’s what we’re doing.”

Under a policy that came into effect this month, foreign masters students are not allowed to bring dependants with them while they study in the UK, and the MAC has been tasked with reviewing whether this should be extended to postgraduate students.

The Home Office said: “We have been clear that current levels of migration to the UK are far too high.

“Our approach strikes the right balance between reducing net migration and ensuring businesses recruit from the domestic workforce, while ensuring our NHS, care and education sectors continue to have access to the workers they need.”

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