Why being guided by the light of the ‘brightest and best’ may lead us all down a blind alley

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By Don Flynn (MRN)
The logic of ‘the brightest and the best” breaks down in the Statement of Intent published by the Home Office last week. Instead we get a doling out of privileges to whoever has lobbied hard enough for them. The lesson is: Make sure you don’t fall behind in the race.

Last week’s “statement of intent” from the Home Office on changes it is going to make to the tiers of the Points-Based Scheme was most noted for its announcement that “the automatic link between employment and settlement” would be brought to an end, as would the domestic worker visa from 6 April.

The rationale for these changes was baldly stated in the written ministerial statement which the Home Secretary presented to Parliament:

Too many migrant workers had been allowed to proceed from temporary residence status in recent years. In future, only the “brightest and the best” are to be allowed to remain permanently in the UK.

Migrant settlement
It is true that the numbers of people admitted as workers under the various work permit, and subsequent PBS tiers, who have gone on to be granted permanent settlement has risen sharply in the period since 1997. In that year 10,000 people admitted as workers, together with their family members, were granted indefinite leave to remain. In 2010 this figure reached 84,000.

Good thing, or bad thing? Bad, says Home Secretary Mrs May. Her Home Office research team managed to whip up some figures showing the salary and occupational levels of some of the people who had come to the UK in 2006 and had been granted settlement by June 2011. Their sample group – 316 people in total – was sub-divided into two groups consisting of those in graduate level occupations and those in supposedly less skilled jobs. It seems that 65% of those in the former, skilled group had settled by the June 2011, as against 78% in the supposedly less-skilled jobs.

The Home Office would have us believe that from this we can conclude that the migrant worker scheme has been favouring less skilled workers in the way its procedures operate, and poor benighted Britain supposedly ends up in getting a bigger share of those who are not amongst the “brightest and the best”.

Harsh conclusion
This is a harsh conclusion to draw from what the researchers who conducted this review point out is a very limited data set. The mere fact that, on a given date a particular person is working in a non-graduate level and relatively low pad job is not necessarily evidence that they are endemically ‘low skilled’. The low paid group might, for example, contain a higher proportion of relatively young people who are at an earlier stage of their career with all the business of accumulating qualifications still before them. They could also be people who are over-qualified for the relatively low-skilled jobs they are doing – a situation not uncommon amongst migrants as well as other members of the workforce.

We can add to this what we know from evidence of the wide disparities in pay across the nations and regions of the UK. This suggests the possibility that a highly paid job in south east England – apparently qualifying the worker as being amongst the elite group – will be more modestly remunerated in, for example, Scotland. So what is being measured is not so much an indication of the value – high or low – of the migrant workers, but the distortions endemic in a UK economy heavily skewed by the dominance of London and the South East.

There are a lot of reasons for thinking that salary and occupational levels are likely to be a poor guide to helping us decide who is amongst “the brightest and the best”. The Home Office thinks otherwise and because of this asserts in its statement of intent that any PBS migrant worker who came to the UK after 5 April 2011 who applies for indefinite leave to remain after being here for five years will be expected to show that they are earning a salary of at least £35,000 a year. This, it thinks, will be a bar it can confidently set to ensure that only those in the exalted category are allowed to settle.

Now for the exceptions….
Except it doesn’t. No sooner does the statement offer this up as a general rule then we find out that all sorts of exceptions will kick in to allow immigration officials to get beyond this crude calculation to allow others to remain who it has to acknowledge are doing vital work.

Of these are eight Phd-level occupations, listing such posts as research and development managers, physicists, geologists and meteorologists, social science researchers, and the catch-all category of “researchers not elsewhere specified.” Everyone who had been permitted to take PBS regulated employment, passed the knowledge of English and UK society tests, and has completed five years of residence, will be granted indefinite leave irrespective of their level of salary.

Also, migrant workers in occupations on the official shortage list will also be exempted from the £35,000 pay threshold. The current list is 15 pages long and includes such posts as graphic designers, buying and purchasing officers in the aerospace sector, high integrity pipe welders, operating theatre nurses, line repairers and cable joiners, and skilled chefs.

In reviewing all these exceptions and qualifications to the rule that “the brightest and the best” can be measured by salary and graduate level skill it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Home Office isn’t just making things up as they go along, and then using the “b&b” argument to hoodwink public opinion that there is a point of high principle guiding their policies. No such high-minded principle exists.

Migrants in the occupations that have the possibility of eventual settlement are not there because Home Office research has discovered an arithmetic formula that allows it to guarantee high quality in its selection of a privileged group of exceptionally talented people. They are there because some powerful interest group has been able to lobby for their inclusion in order that their business activities can proceed with greater certainty in its dealings with their migrant employees.

Losers
This is good news for the ones lucky enough to be allied with trades and commercial interests which carry this weight with the government. But the losers – migrant domestic workers to the forefront (read this MRN guest blog) – but with them scientists and technicians employed outside the circle of shortage occupations, great swathes of software engineers, medical practitioners and secondary school teachers, social care workers and hospitality staff – are in that predicament not because of a deficiency on their part, but because they haven’t got people lined up to fight their corner with ministers and the leading civil servants.

Louder voices needed
In the great scheme of things this would seem to be a personal misfortune for the excluded workers, but an issue of no great consequence to anyone else. But it would be short-sighted to reach that conclusion. The fact is, as the British economy fights to get itself back into growth, the business and public service concerns that will be doing much of the heavy lifting will often be small and medium size enterprises needing key staff whose availability in the regions they are based in, and at the pay-rates that prevail in their local economies, are not adequately reflected in the official shortage occupation list.

Our prediction is that the approach outlined in the statement of intent will be shown to entail a great deal of pain for both migrant workers on the wrong side of the favoured categories, and also the firms that want to employ them, and the businesses which want to purchase their services. Those who are likely to miss out on what is on offer to the privileged groups of migrants under the terms of this new policy – migrants and their employers – would be best advised to start organising to make sure that your voice is amplified in your dealings with government in the immediate future’. Leave it for too long and it will be difficult to make good the damage.

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