Britain to set new immigration quota, warned it could hamper growth and hurt business
By: DAVID STRINGER
07/25/10 9:10 AM EDT
LONDON—British Prime Minister David Cameron won much attention on his recent trip to the United States with his program of savage spending cuts. He's also been sharpening his shears on another front: immigration.
The new coalition government will impose a permanent immigration quota next year, promising to cut levels of migration to rates last seen in the 1990s and dramatically reduce the numbers of non-Europeans allowed to live and work in the U.K.
It's long been a flagship cause for the country's Conservative Party, which leads Britain's governing coalition and bitterly complained in opposition that unchecked immigration had strained public services, distorted labor markets and fueled social divides.
But business leaders warn the immigration quota could leave the country short in vital industries leaving some areas without adequate medical staff, stalling efforts to meet deadlines to build new nuclear power stations, and leaving care workers needed for a growing elderly population in short supply.
Some warn that the limit is unworkable and that by choking off the supply of foreign workers, the government could stall economic growth and curtail Britain's recovery from recession.
As a member of the European Union, Britain must allow citizens of most other members states free movement to live and work in the U.K
It means the crackdown will target workers from Africa who make up the largest group of non-European migrants working in the U.K. and Commonwealth countries such as India, Pakistan and Australia. Citizens of Commonwealth nations lost preferential treatment from Britain on immigration in the 1970s.
Americans, who number about 80,000 working in the U.K., will also face new difficulties.
“Now is not the best time to impose a cap, because we need those workers to consolidate and strengthen what is already a fragile economic recovery,” said Gerwyn Davies, public policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which represents human resources staff across Britain.
Unemployment in Britain stands at 7.8 percent, a slight fall from recent months. But 7.82 million workers are in part-time employment, the highest rate since records began in 1992.
Immigration has long been a thorny political issue in Britain, and helped to seal ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown's ouster at the country's May national election.
Migrant groups insist immigration rules are already tough and warn that, rather than skilled workers, it may actually be foreign students and the family members of foreign workers who bear the brunt of the new curbs. Many suspect Britain will discourage overseas students by restricting their ability to work to support their studies, or toughen English language requirements for those seeking to join a spouse or partner already living in Britain.
Students and family members make up a larger proportion of total annual immigration than skilled workers.
“We feel that it's impractical, we are not sure how it's going to work and we see it as unfair, because it seems that Britain is closing its doors on the poor of the world,” said Nazek Ramadan, who moved to Britain from the Lebanon 24 years ago and is director of the campaign group Migrants' Voice.
Under the new rules, to be introduced in April, the government will set a limit on the total annual level of net immigration. That figure is to be decided in talks among Britain's migration advisory committee, business leaders, universities and experts.
Meanwhile, Home Secretary Theresa May has imposed a temporary cap, fearing a rush of people attempting to enter Britain before the long-term rules are in place. Until April, only 5,400 skilled workers from outside Europe who don't already hold the offer of a job will be allowed into Britain and each person must meet strict points-based entry criteria. Only 18,700 non-Europeans who have already been offered jobs in Britain will be allowed entry.
In the year to September 2009, net migration into the U.K. was 142,000 of which about 52 percent came from outside the European Union. Though it was down on the previous year's figure of about 160,000, May aims to cut the total to below 100,000.
Britain will “bring immigration down from the hundreds of thousands that it became under Labour to the tens of thousands that it used to be,” May said.
The U.K. already imposes a limit on the number of Bulgarian and Romanian workers who are allowed entry and permits them only to work in agriculture or food processing under rules agreed when the two nations joined the EU in 2007.
May's interior ministry says it will announce full details of the new permanent quota before the end of the year.
“What we don't want is an immigration cap that is a bar to growth,” said Anne Fairweather, head of public policy at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, an industry group that represents 3,700 recruitment agencies in Britain.
Fairweather said that, while many industries trimmed their work force as Britain suffered a biting 18-month recession, and dramatically cut the numbers of skilled workers they hired from outside Europe, a return to growth means they'll now likely need more non-European staff.
In two growing sectors skilled engineering and social care Britain already has shortages of workers, and could struggle to cope with the cap, businesses say.
May hopes to fill the gaps by quickly training British workers to meet shortages in the employment market, but most analysts believe that's impractical.
Britain currently lists shortages in a range of occupations. It needs cardiac physiologists, nuclear medicine scientists, engineering geologists, petroleum engineers and pediatric surgeons meaning it looks more favorably on visa applications from non-Europeans in those fields.
Fairweather said one looming problem is that British and European workers are increasingly reluctant to take up low paid jobs as care workers. With an aging population, and curbs on government spending likely to keep wages in the sector low, Britain will need to look outside to the EU to meet its needs, she said.
Non-European workers will also be needed to meet planned programs to build new nuclear power plants as few Britons have the necessary skills, she said.
“Of course we support the government's plan to upskill our own work force but you can't just upskill a nuclear engineer overnight,” Fairweather said.
Davies said his members have acute shortages “in engineering, in I.T., and in the public sector for doctors and nurses.”
“The solution up to now has been to recruit from outside the European Union, but when that supply has been cut off, many will be left with a huge challenge in filling those roles. That's why we are opposed to the cap,” he said.