Charles Clarke’s tough new immigration policy, announced last week, may alleviate the growing anti-immigration sentiment in the UK, but will it ensure British employers have access to the skills they need? Ross Bentley reports
Under the home secretary’s new plan, immigrants will be sorted according to a four-tier point system, similar to that used by the Australian and Canadian authorities, with marks allocated for skills and qualifications.
Only those in the top two tiers – skilled workers such as doctors, nurses, teachers and IT workers – will be able to stay in Britain permanently, and they will have to pass an English test.
Low-skilled workers will be expected to leave after five years; and although they will be entitled to free education and healthcare, they will be banned from claiming benefits. Those claiming refugee status will no longer get permanent citizenship; if the situation in their native country improves, they may be sent home.
But how will UK employers ensure they have a say in what skills are given priority?
The Home Office proposals include the formation of a skills advisory body, in conjunction with the Skills for Business Network, to advise on labour market and skills shortages. Input will also come from Work Permits UK, the body that currently processes work permit applications for foreign workers from UK employers.
“Work Permits UK is ideally placed to advise because it is employer-driven and in constant dialogue with employer organisations, large employers such as the NHS and the unions,” says a Home Office spokesperson.
The Australian model, established more than 20 years ago, works in a similar way. There, points are allocated to specific job types by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations. A spokesman for the Australian High Commission says this process works well and ensures the system is flexible and responsive to national needs.
“About five years ago, there was a huge demand for IT skills in Australia and anyone with those skills was awarded a high number of points. After the tech bubble burst, employers told us there was a glut of IT workers so it was removed from the list,” he says.
Extra points are also given to those prepared to go to rural areas and less fashionable towns, such as Adelaide, that have a skills shortage.
However, the Australian government did get its sums wrong a few years ago and left the country with a critical shortage of doctors.
That is why it is a mistake to think any advisory body can come up with an exact number for each type of job speciality, says John Philpott, chief economist at the CIPD.
He says: “Both the Conservative and Liberal parties have said they intend to set quotas in specific job areas, but this is unachievable.
“If you set the quota too high, the number becomes purely cosmetic, but if you set it too low, it will only have to be adjusted again and make a nonsense of setting quotas in the first place.”
Philpott also says the proposal that companies sponsoring temporary immigrant workers will be responsible for returning them back to their country of origin may have an effect on hiring patterns.
“The onus on companies to return workers will be relatively straightforward for companies with an organised HR department, but may deter smaller employers who will be fined if their foreign workers jump ship,” he says.
This may, he says, see UK employers turning to alternative sources of labour, such as workers from the Eastern European states that have recently joined the EU or disabled and older workers from the UK.