The wisdom of the Coalition’s strict monthly cap on skilled immigration is the hottest topic for many of my commercial constituents. For multinational businesses, a liberal immigration policy is the litmus test for the proposition that the UK is ‘open for business’. Surely, my associates suggest, a cap is at odds with the government’s passionate commitment to economic growth.
The apparent softening of the government’s stance on the cap this week to reflect this widely-held sentiment has been subject to press criticism. Many on this website feel betrayed at the ease with which this apparently immovable pillar of May’s Coalition Agreement is being dismantled. However, I believe the Prime Minister should not feel overly hamstrung by his earlier pledge. We must think very carefully before we impose a permanent, artificial limit on those who seek to study or work here.
Nor, of course, should we ever accept blindly the undercutting of the indigenous workforce with cheap migrant labour. Few would support employers choosing an international worker over a similarly skilled Briton or welcoming with open arms each and every person who decides they would like to start a new life in the UK. However, flexibility in a country’s immigration system is now part and parcel of being a signed up member of the global economy. International businesses and business people, not to mention academics, expect to be able to move with relative ease between open, dynamic and flexible global cities, just as many mobile Britons would anticipate being able to work in Hong Kong, New York, Shanghai or Mumbai for a spell. Those countries which restrict this movement risk economic isolation in the age of globalisation.
The problem with the immigration debate is that it is stifled by a lack of candour. In truth, the movement of international business people and students is not the nub of the issue for most Britons. Instead, worries about immigration broadly stem from a sense of rapid change to our communities which no longer seems under control and for which there has never been an explicit mandate.