The Debate About Immigration Cap has Begun.



The much-debated cap on skilled and highly-skilled migrants came into force last Wednesday 6th April, accompanied by a substantial hike in fees for immigration and nationality applications. The cap will limit visas for skilled and highly skilled work to 21,000 per year, with the government confidently (perhaps over-confidently) stating that the changes planned for the coming months “will see net migration fall back down to the tens of thousands”.

Introducing the immigration cap has not been an easy ride for the government. The new annual limit has been a hot topic for debate, with rocky experiences of the transitional immigration cap since July 2010 heightening anxieties among both employers and applicants. The government’s proposed measures around the cap have continued to generate controversy, with debate over concessions secured which liberate intra-company transfers from this limit, concern over the increase in general requirements for those applying to work in the UK, and complaint in some quarters about other measures will ease the way for wealthy investors and entrepreneurs from overseas while tightening up entry and stay in the UK for many others.

One point of consensus has, however, emerged out of this debate over recent months: that the immigration cap is unlikely to have a big overall impact in reducing numbers of migrants to the UK. Commentators ranging from ippr to Migrationwatch have agreed that despite the big messages, the cap cannot make a real contribution to meeting the government’s overall target of slashing net migration as it will have relatively small effects on numbers of migrants entering the UK. It is likely that ongoing analysis will scrutinise the effectiveness of the cap on its own merits – and uncomfortable moments for the government certainly lie ahead in terms of the ‘numbers’ debate.

The cap will also be analysed over the coming months on a wider set of criteria. Can an immigration system which operates a cap on economic immigration really meet the UK’s economic needs, particularly without other measures to reduce dependency on migrant workers including investment in skills development among Brits and tighter regulation of employers? Will limiting entry of the skilled individuals to the UK have the effect of stunting our capacity for global trade and investment, and hinder development of world class research and cultural outputs? When the cap comes up for renewal next year, we can expect that a wide range of perspectives, from UK plc to migrant interest groups, will have plenty to say about it – the government will be likely to find itself under real pressure to justify the continuation of this policy.

Although the policy has now come into force, the debate on the immigration cap is far from over – in fact, it has only just begun.
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