When the search for ‘the brightest and the best’ conflicts with what the UK really needs from immigration policy

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The Coalition’s immigration policies aim to recruit ‘the brightest and the best’ to the shores of the UK. Whilst this might provide the sound-bite needed to square the circle between moderates and those opposed outright to migration in the Government camp, it is unlikely to provide support to the businesses and services which need to work with migrants to fight their way back to growth and efficiency.

The coalition is planning plenty of ‘big bazookas’ in the coming months with its plans to further tighten-up on immigration policy. The targets coming into the cross-fire include luckless residents on merely average wage levels who want to sponsor partners from non-EU climes; skilled migrants whose hopes of settlement will be diminished by greatly increased earnings requirements; and domestic workers who until now have had some peace of mind gained from relatively secure residence status and which looks likely to be brought to an end sometime during the next few months.

Yet the coalition is always keen to stress that it is not against immigration as such, but merely wants to focus policies which recruit the most skilled workers – the ‘brightest and best’ – who it believes will most benefit the economy.

The brightest and the best will obviously always be very welcome, but there are good reasons to be concerned that the capacity of services and businesses to attract this group will be adversely affected if we block out those who operate at the more modest standard of the merely very good, the hard working and the industrious.

A dose of realism about our current economic predicament very quickly leads to the conclusion that it is not necessarily Nobel Prize winning scientists the UK needs, nor global gold standard CEOs ready to take the helm of our industries and businesses. The real gaps need to be filled by rather ordinary people who are simply very good at their jobs in such capacities as residential care workers, hospitality trade managers and skilled staff, engineers and technicians, and all-rounders with language skills and knowledge of overseas business environments that will help sell more goods and services abroad.

The sense of what is actually needed in Britain today comes in a report published last week by the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI). Migration reform: caps don’t fit is particularly interesting because its focus is on firms and businesses which make up the small and medium-size enterprise (SME) sector in the UK. SMEs employ anything between one and 500 people on their payrolls.

With around a half-million private businesses in this sector, their activities are vitally important to growth in the employment base. Whilst the business plans for large multi-nationals are likely to be based on the reduction of workforce size through rationalisation, out-sourcing and mergers, growth for the average SME is more strongly associated with additional hirings and employment expansion.

In overall volume terms, SMEs are not the biggest employers of migrant workers, though the record does vary from sector to sector. But what the LCCI report shows is that even when the total volume of migrant worker hirings is low, the per capita value they produce for the company is likely to be high. This high value means that a large proportion of SMEs will have experience of recruiting and working with migrants, though in many cases it will be in the order of one or two people per firm.

The report sets out survey results which suggest that around 25% of businesses in the smallest category (between one to 19 employees) have hired non-EU nationals. This proportion grows with size of firm – to 55% for those employing 20-199; 60% from 200-499; and close to 70% for the 500+ employer range.

More work needs to be done to gain a better understanding of the strategic value that employing migrants brings to the firms concerned. Are these the businesses which are making headway in terms of growth at this time, or at least building the type of resilience that will allow them to scale up into growth when external conditions become more favourable?

We will also want to know what benefits are got from the firms employing migrants for British national workers: are firms which maintain their competitiveness in hard times through the employment of migrants better equipped to offer decent jobs and, importantly in a period of high youth unemployment, training opportunities to natives than those with solely British workforces?

The LCCI report now adds to other studies, most recently the Corporation of London’s review of the impact on the financial sector, of the contribution that migrants make to UK businesses. There is little evidence in these accounts that jobs gained for migrant workers translate into lost opportunities for residents and nationals.

What should have higher recognition on the policy agenda is the fact migrants will be in the best position to contribute to economic growth and greater efficiency in the provision of public services if the obviously onerous features of a ‘super-selective’ immigration control regime were lifted.

The futile and self-defeating search for ‘the brightest and the best’, and their entrapment in a regulatory regime which limits migrants’ rights to family life and the wider choices available to them, is not the best framework for policies which ought to be favouring dynamic and innovative attitudes.

On the 18th December the world will mark the 12th International Migrants Day since that date was first proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 2000. This year, with half of the world’s economy still mired in dangerous stagnation, it would be good to use the day to reflect on the contribution that migrants have made to prosperity and welfare and how much greater it might be if their basic rights were properly acknowledged and protected across the planet.

By Don Flynn (MRN)

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