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How Britain’s new Prime Minister should approach immigration

Written by
Yash Dubal
Date of Publication:
19 July 2022

The Conservative Party leadership contest has so far illustrated to the world that if you are a migrant, Britain is the place to be. The diversity of the candidates in the first round was noteworthy. Of the 11 who declared they would run, six were of black or Asian heritage.

Of those who made it to the first round of voting, Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman are of Indian descent, Tom Tugendhat of French descent, Nadhim Zahawi of Iraqi Kurdish descent, and Kemi Badenoch of Nigerian descent.

Several of the candidates highlighted the positive aspects of their migrant backgrounds in their campaign interviews and messaging.

Current favourite Sunak started his campaign video with the story of his grandmother, who came to the UK from India. "Let me tell you a story about a young woman almost a lifetime ago who boarded a plane armed with hope for a better life," he said.

Nadhim Zahawi arrived in Britain aged 11 as a refugee from Iraq. He also used his migrant background declaring: "I'm a father, an immigrant, a self-made businessman." Suella Braverman, the attorney-general, spoke of her mother, who came from Mauritius, and her father, from Kenya. "They loved Britain. It gave them hope, it gave them security, this country gave them opportunity." Sajid Javid, a former health secretary, also told the story of his father, who arrived from Pakistan with £1 ($1.20) in his pocket. Mr Zahawi calls it "the British dream".

Slick politicians would certainly not highlight any aspects of their backgrounds that could be detrimental to their chances of success and the fact that so many are celebrating their heritage chimes with a 2019 survey which found that 88% of Britons said they'd be "comfortable" with an ethnic-minority prime minister, higher than any country in the EU.

In 2021 almost one million visas were issued to people from overseas seeking to come and work, study, or live in the UK, the highest number ever. This may appear surprising, given the anti-immigration rhetoric of the Brexit debate but six years have passed since the referendum and attitudes have changed.

The increase in legal migrant workers has been facilitated by the liberalisation of the UK immigration system. Priti Patel, the home secretary, who was born in London to a Ugandan-Indian family, has made it easier for skilled migrants from countries such as India and the Philippines to come to the UK to work.

This has not been met with outrage from those who voted leave because of concerns about immigration. According to a 2021 British Future report based on Ipos MORI research, public attitudes to immigration are now more positive than negative and most people support British businesses being allowed to recruit from overseas to address staff shortages. This is just as well, given the chaos we are seeing in many industries that cannot find workers to fill vacancies.

Indeed, if there is any advice that should be given to whoever does become our next Prime Minister it would be to continue the road of immigration liberalisation and make it simpler for businesses to employ overseas workers. There is a strong argument for adding more professions to the Shortage Occupation List to enable employers to fill vacancies as it is easier for overseas workers to gain Skilled Worker visas for jobs included on the Shortage Occupation list.

The list is regularly revised, and occupations are added and removed. Given how acute shortages are in some sectors it would be a sensible move to look at adding some of those professions onto the list, even if it is only a temporary measure for a few years. It is evident that there are not enough native workers to fill roles so employers need to be able to look internationally.

Another issue that many of the businesses I advise are highlighting is the delays in processing times for visa applications. Earlier this year the Home Office reallocated resources at UKVI to concentrate on Ukrainian visa applications. While this policy should remain, now the initial flood of applicants fleeing the tragic situation in the country has abated, the balance of resources should be reassessed as delays are doing British businesses no favours.

Finally, our new PM needs to look at the routes open to overseas investors. In February this year the controversial Investor visa was scrapped. Otherwise known as the 'Golden' visa this route to the UK was open to eligible applicants with £2m or more to invest. It was also open to abuse and unscrupulous high net worth individuals were using it as a way to gain access to the UK and launder dirty money. While it is quite right that this route was closed, there are now very limited options for genuine entrepreneurs who wish to establish genuine businesses in the UK, so much so that I have developed a system of self-sponsorship as a lifeline to reputable migrant entrepreneurs. It would be prudent for the new leader of the country to consider a more secure version of the investor visa.

Meanwhile, the latest changes to the immigration system – the Global Business Mobility routes set up to replace the popular Sole Representative visa – are overly complicated and bureaucratic. The Sole Representative visa was a simple and popular way workers from overseas businesses could come to the UK and set up branches and subsidiaries of their parent companies. This was scrapped but the replacement needs to be simplified if the government is serious about making the UK an attractive place for entrepreneurs and investors.