Mr Green’s speech points to ‘double-plus selectivity’

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The speech of the immigration minister, Damian Green, before an audience assembled by the Conservative think-tank Policy Exchange this morning didn’t quite turn out to be the announcement of firm new policy we had thought it might be.

Much of the detail is still obviously being worked over by the policy wonks in the UK Border Agency and it seems we will have to wait another month or so before we find out more on the income levels the government intends to fix to allow family members in the UK to be joined by partners and children residing abroad, or the rate for the chosen elite of skilled workers who will be allowed to proceed from temporary status to settlement and eventual British citizenship.

The principle of double-plus selectivity
But Mr Green did set out the principle which is going to guide the thinking of his department on these issues, and it is called selectivity double-plus, or super-selectivity.

As he put it in his speech, the Home Office needs to know not just the right numbers of people who are to be allowed to settle in the UK, but also that they are the right people. He wants to push beyond the ranks of the ordinary, hardworking, enterprising bog-standard migrant to get to the ‘brightest and the best’ who can be relied on to perform at the level of Bill Gates or James Caan.

Selection, selection, selection, runs through the minister’s thinking like Blackpool through a stick of rock.

What will it look like in practice?
A worrying foretaste might be got from his obvious disdain for ‘the middle manager’, trashed in his comments as a species akin to ‘unskilled labour’. What he wants instead are “top of the range professionals, senior executives, technical specialists, entrepreneurs and exceptional artists and scientific talent.”

Fine and dandy. But one’s knowledge of the business world does not have to extend much beyond a few episodes of The Apprentice to know that all these top notch people are today to be found amongst the ranks of the dreamers and restless neurotics burdened with the hope that their exceptional self-believe and rampant narcissism will carry them upwards to the heights of the super-achievers.

Presumably the business of awarding Points-Based visas is not going to be conducted on the same principles as Dragon’s Den, as entertaining as that might be. Instead expect that a company’s application to sponsor a much-needed worker will be much more a matter of a team of Border Agency officials crawling over business plans and management structure organograms in an effort to determine the point in which the performance level goes beyond the merely very good and edges towards the absolute stellar.

Back to the future
If Mr Green truly intends to move skilled migrant recruitment in this direction he should be reminded what the work permit system looked like back in the early 1990s, when often clumsy and inept civil servants spent weeks and months second-guessing the business decisions of employers, turning down three out of every four applications to bring in a worker.

He is in danger of designing a thick-headed and unresponsive system. We have already had a glimpse of just how badly his department can set up these schemes in the exceptional talent route he introduced last year as a way to bring in “the brightest and the best” working in the field of the arts and science and technology. According to insiders, five months into the scheme’s operation, a tiny minority (as few as 6) of visas had been issued as against the 1000 the scheme had allowed for.

The problem the Home Office is likely to be generating for itself in wrapping up its skilled migration policies in the rhetoric of only the very best, is that it is likely to deter applications from people who, although very good, are not so self-absorbed as to think of themselves as being amongst ‘the best’. It will be the UK’s loss if that happens: the merely very good are likely to be quite good enough to be recruited to less ridiculously demanding immigration countries like the United States, Australia, or any of our European competitors.

Mr Green’s plans are not likely to be welcomed by employers. They will have to work harder to encourage the workers they want to recruit to come to the UK, with the prospect of a limited scope for family admission and long-term settlement, which we can expect to be announced soon.

Speaking of migration…
But perhaps the thing from the minister’s speech that really takes the biscuit is his pious call for a raising of the ‘tone of the immigration debate’. This comes from a man who only within the last fortnight, together with his ministerial counterpart in DWP, has had to be reprimanded by the head of the UK Statistics Authority for unethical behaviour in trailing evidence from departmental research in a misleading and prejudicial commentary which incited public feeling against people born abroad who, in relatively low numbers, had received work-related social welfare benefits.

So, there is little in this speech that would encourage anyone to take heart that better immigration policies are just around the corner. A more accurate way to put it would be: expect to be tangled up in blue ribbon if you are an employer wanting to sponsor a skilled worker. And if you are a skilled worker with a family life and wanting to make a long-term commitment to settlement, look for more respect and better prospects in countries with more generous dispositions and sunnier climes.

Don Flynn (MRN)

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