Permanent immigration cap likely to be watered down to meet business needs, experts predict

The proposed immigration cap is likely to be watered down before its permanent introduction to ensure it can flex to meet the recruitment needs of business, employment experts have predicted.

Earlier this week, the government announced a temporary cap until next April on non-EU workers arriving to the UK. The interim cap will take effect from 19 July, and will mean 24,100 workers from outside Europe can enter the UK before April 2011 – a fall of 5% on last year.

This year’s cap will include Tier One workers, such as scientists and entrepreneurs, and Tier Two arrivals, such as teachers and nurses.

Home secretary Theresa May also announced a 12-week consultation with businesses to decide a permanent annual limit for non-EU workers

Business groups have previously warned a heavy-handed cap would create recruitment headaches for employers seeking highly skilled migrant workers and worsen skills shortages.

But the permanent cap is unlikely to be as draconian as business had previously feared, according to some experts.

John Philpott, chief economist at the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, told Personnel Today the government would probably want to ensure that, in certain circumstances, the most highly sought-after workers could still get a work permit for the UK even if the quota had been met.

He said: “I think there will be a compromise with a limit on the numbers of immigrants coming in, but with the cap as not much more than a flexed points system, which is stricter in certain categories but has the flexibility to fit in more of the highly skilled workforce.”

Philpott added that although City firms – which are heavily reliant on skilled foreign workers – may find recruitment of migrants harder under a cap, an immigration limit would probably not provide major problems for most companies.

“Bad companies who have used immigration to avoid investing in people in this country may have bigger problems,” Philpott said. “The positive thing is they may respond by training more home-grown staff.”

Neil Carberry, head of employment at the CBI, gave a guarded welcome to the temporary cap, saying it was set at a reasonable level and should not prevent companies making hires that had already been planned.

He added the temporary cap for Tier Two workers will affect only new hires, and would not prevent staff already employed by a company from transferring to the UK from overseas subsidiaries. “This is very important because transfers of knowledge are vital for work done in Britain,” he said.

But Carberry warned a balance needed to be struck between the needs of business and society, and it was more important for business that the cap was “sustainable” and flexible. A flexible cap could be achieved by raising or lowering the “pass mark” for immigrant workers under the points-based system, which would help to avoid arbitrary limits and prioritise the most skilled, he said.

But other employment experts questioned whether an immigration cap could ever be flexible enough to meet changing recruitment needs.

Tim Finch, head of migration at the Institute for Public Policy Research, said: “Presumably, if a cap is to mean anything, there can’t be much flexibility built into it for so-called ‘special cases’. There must be a possibility therefore that the quota of places could be filled well before the end of the year, meaning firms who need to bring in migrants later in the year will miss out.”

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