In his maiden speech to the House of Commons as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson ignited nationalism in the parliament and promised to make the country the greatest place on Earth and pronounced his ascendancy as the beginning of a new golden age. He vowed to provide high-speed 5G mobile to everyone, cut carbon emissions, build railways, cut taxes, make homeownership affordable and hire 20,000 more police officers. He reiterated his oldest, biggest and the most important promise of getting Britain out of the Europe Union in less than 100 days, with or without a deal, causing jitters among pro-Europeans and financial markets. He added that he would not go with the Irish-backstop plan agreed by his predecessor, Mrs Theresa May, and said he would reopen talks over the withdrawal agreement that former prime minister and her EU counterparts spent two years negotiating.
However, amongst all the nationalist rhetoric and hyperboles, the most pleasing statement was his promise to radically rewrite the immigration system of the country to attract the best and brightest, hinting that he would run a more liberal immigration regime. He told the parliament that he wanted to introduce an Australia-style points-based system for immigration of skilled overseas workers as he distanced himself from the target of cutting annual net migration set by Theresa May. He said that he would ask the Migration Advisory Committee to review the Australia system as his first step of the radical immigration system and shirked the proposal by former prime minister David Cameron in 2010 to cut net immigration to about 100,000 annually.
He also extended his support to provide amnesty for illegal immigrants, offering relief to 500,000 undocumented migrants by proposing to allow them to remain legally in the country, a move that was welcomed by business leaders. He said that the economic advantages and disadvantages of the policy would be looked into and said he had raised the issue several times when he was in government but was held back by Theresa May. The new Prime Minister is a long-standing advocate of the move and had called for earned amnesty for as many as 400,000 illegal immigrants when he was Mayor of London so that long-standing UK residents would be legally allowed to work in the country, but it never happened as it was beyond his powers as mayor. However, in 2011, it was accused that ministers had been operating in practice an amnesty for illegal immigrants as around 161,000 asylum seekers been allowed to stay in the UK in order to not breach their right to a family life, as they had been living in the country for a long time.
In his speech to the parliament, Mr Johnson said that after Brexit, the 3.2 million EU nationals living in the country would be allowed to continue living there. He also mentioned the Windrush scandal, when thousands of immigrants from the Caribbean who arrived in the UK as children were threatened with deportation, and said it showed the difficulties that can be caused by a mass expulsion of people who had been a resident of the country for a long time. However, critics said that such a policy would not be feasible as it would encourage future illegality by rewarding immigrants and might fuel an explosion in migrants from the European Union in a desperate bid to reach the UK.
The Australian points system is regarded as one of the most organised points based system of immigration – which is based on a host of factors such as age, specific skills and educational qualifications – and potential migrants are not required to have a job offer, but instead can qualify on the basis of other factors. However, in the UK, foreigners who want to work in Britain must have a job before they arrive and will have to be able to speak English, indicating the changes would not be a radical shift towards the Australian approach. Some experts also debated over the interpretation of the proposed points system for visas for overseas workers, as it could be set to be very restrictive or it could be liberal.
Last year, Theresa May laid out her immigration policy for the post-Brexit UK, declaring significant curbs on the entry of low-skilled migrants and an end to preferential access for EU citizens to the labour market of UK. It was proposed that after a Brexit transition period, all migrants planning to live and work in Britain would have to meet a minimum salary threshold to prove they are sufficiently skilled, which is expected to be more than £30,000 a year and high-skilled workers would be allowed to bring their families. Only limited numbers of low-skilled migrants would be allowed to come to Britain, and a more extensive system of sector-by-sector exemptions was ruled out.
While Mrs May was keen to present a tough UK immigration policy, but said that there would be some flexibility in the immigration arrangements. Under the terms of a post-Brexit free trade deal with the bloc, EU workers would have received some preferential access to the British labour market, like setting a lower salary threshold for workers coming from the EU. There were concerns that small companies would be impacted the most because many of the EU nationals hired are low or mid-skilled and businesses worried about the length of time companies would be given to adjust to the new immigration regime. However, as Mrs May has left the office, the validity of this policy statement is now under some serious doubt.
The subsequent Conservative governments have not realised the positive impact of allowing immigrants to work in the country, especially highly skilled immigrants. The policy followed by the UK is one of the toughest in the developed world and has been a source of ire by many businesses. A highly productive immigrant, like students who seek post-study visa, can contribute immensely to the gross domestic product (GDP) of a country by improving per capita GDP. Also, this can potentially decrease the labour costs for companies which could contribute to their profitability. Moreover, most of the time, immigrants have to pay taxes just like the citizens but are not entitled to the benefits provided by governments. This helps fill the government’s coffers and fund the social programmes undertaken.
Experts reckon that a focus on need will ensure the UK would have access to vital skills and labour to grow the economy and sends a decisive signal to the world that the UK is open for business. Moreover, businesses have long demanded that they should be allowed to recruit a skilled workforce from both at home and from overseas as the country is facing severe skill gaps at every level. Last year, the Migration Advisory Committee in a report said that opposition to migration from the European Union showed that cultural crisis boiling in the country as the ruling class had benefited the most from immigration. It also stated that while the benefits claimed by others have not been significant, the negative effects claimed by some are also not as large as it is made out to be.
Many business leaders have seen the proposal to shift towards Australia-style points system sceptically, as they believe it would not deliver the skills the economy needs to grow and would be a bureaucratic nightmare. To ensure workers are decently paid, avoid a recruitment cliff edge and enable businesses to access talent, the government should set a salary threshold for overseas workers in line with the London living wage.
A study recently published by the Entrepreneurs Network, a think-tank, showed half of the fastest-growing companies in the country have at least one foreign born co-founder, highlighting the importance of immigrants in creating wealth in the country. According to estimates by the Office for National Statistics from 2017, one in seven of the UK population was born abroad, with a total of 6 per cent of UK residents from the EU. This shows the need for policymakers to restore policies that encourage skilled migration to drive economic growth at a very uncertain time in the history of the country. To encourage young entrepreneurs to keep their businesses in the UK, the government should allow recent foreign college graduates to work in the country for two years after leaving education and offer relaxed policies for students who want to start a new business.
Many voting for Brexit in 2016 wanted to cut immigration, following the rightist trend that has been lately seen in the developed world. Driven by a decline in arrivals from the EU, total immigration for work has fallen in the UK since the EU referendum. The openness to migration is still uncertain, and though the comments by Johnson offers some hope, experts are still waiting to see what would happen, especially since the current government rests on a thin majority with serious chances of re-election.