Immigration minister calls for tougher look at visa qualifications
The UK needs to look harder at who is qualifying for visas after research showed more than a fifth of foreign students were still in the country after five years, the immigration minister Damian Green said tonight.
Published: 4:31PM BST 06 Sep 2010
In his first major speech since the coalition Government took office, Mr Green said the annual cap on economic migrants from outside the EU would not be enough on its own to deliver the target of reducing net immigration to the ''tens of thousands''.
He said the unsustainable levels of net migration, which leapt by a fifth last year to 196,000, must be brought down and ''all routes into the UK'' must be studied to ensure only the ''brightest and best'' migrants entered the country to study and work.
Speaking at the Royal Commonwealth Club, Mr Green said: ''We need steady downward pressure on many routes to long-term immigration in order to hit our net migration commitment.
''We are looking at all routes, and will need to set rules for each of them that give us the immigrants we need.
''Each of these policies will be controversial with those who have become used to the previous system.
''Change is seldom easy. But in an increasingly globalised world it is ever more important that proper immigration controls are not only in place but are seen to be in place.''
If the UK does not create public confidence in its immigration system, Mr Green said ''we will remain vulnerable to those who want to find scapegoats for social problems''.
Sustainable immigration levels ''will relieve pressure on public services, and stop immigration being such a delicate political issue,'' he said.
''At the same time, we must be confident enough to say Britain is open for business and study to those who will make this a better country, and a more open society.''
Mr Green said the points-based system introduced by Labour was still not delivering proper control of numbers of migrants coming into the country and added it had been ''too easy'' for people to enter the UK illegally and to stay beyond the length of a visa.
Home Office-commissioned research looked into all of those who came into the UK in 2004 and tracked their immigration status for the following five years. All those granted settlement in 2009 were also studied to see how they entered the country in the first place.
The largest group of visas granted in 2004 were to 186,000 students, more than one-fifth of whom – about 37,000 people – were still in the UK five years later.
The research found that numbers of visas issued to students and their dependants had risen to 307,000 by the year to June 2010.
Calling for a more intelligent debate about immigration, and pledging to rely ''more on evidence than is customary in this role'' Mr Green said the UK needed more information about who stayed long-term and why.
''If we continue to have a fifth of students staying long term, we will have very high net migration numbers indeed,'' he said.
As internal Home Office estimates showed more than 90,000 people were coming into Britain every year to do courses below degree level at private institutions, Mr Green said: ''The foreign students attending these various establishments may, or frankly may not be, the brightest and the best.
''I want to ensure those who come here to study at language schools or any other institutions play by the rules and leave when their visas expire.
''We need to decide whether this is right and also whether it is the best thing for the students themselves, given the high financial commitments required of them.''
While Britain's universities contained some of the best students in the world, he said, ''this does not mean that every student visa issued is necessarily benefiting Britain''.
Some 106,000 work visas were issued in 2004, and two fifths of this group – more than 40,000 people – were still in the UK in 2009.
Mr Green said it would be ''not just wrong, but self-defeating'' to pull up the drawbridge, but added that skilled workers should not include people running take-away restaurants and production line workers.
''Certainly we cannot assume that everyone coming here to work has skills that the UK workforce cannot offer.
''In any case, we will not make Britain prosperous in the long term by telling our own workers, 'don't bother to learn new skills, we can bring them all in from overseas'.''
He added that a sustainable level of immigration was needed ''not just for the Government, but for the success of our whole society''.
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