Lord Bilimoria: The Government’s immigration plans do not reflect an ‘open Britain’

Posted On: 
28th January 2019

Hostile immigration policies will do untold damage to the UK’s manufacturing industry. It is baffling that the government is willing to implement such a strategy, says Lord Bilimoria

The immigration white paper released last month does not say ‘open Britain’. It says business as usual for this Conservative government, writes Lord Bilimoria
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With the UK’s departure from the European Union possibly imminent, the government talks about going global and making free trade deals with countries around the world. But the immigration white paper released last month does not say ‘open Britain’. It says business as usual for this Conservative government – only now without all the benefits that come with being a part of the world’s biggest free trading bloc.

Being part of the single market is inextricably linked to freedom of movement, but it seems the government is willing to lose out on all these benefits to forge its own, hostile way.

The most incredible of the policies laid out in the white paper is that future immigrants must be earning above £30,000 to remain in the country after 12 months. It is baffling that the government is willing to implement such a damaging policy that would see us lose thousands of workers in areas such as cleaning, hospitality and food processing.

It would also cause untold damage to sectors, including the curry restaurant industry, with the average entry level salary for UK chefs well below the £30,000 threshold. It would be practically impossible to bring talented chefs from South Asia to the UK with this threshold.

But the greatest damage could be to the manufacturing sector. Last year, Politico found that one in five UK manufacturing jobs were at risk because of Brexit, with 11% of manufacturing companies having already lost contracts and two-thirds saying they would have to raise prices.

Jaguar Land Rover has already cited Brexit as a primary reason for cutting 4,500 jobs worldwide, the majority of which are in the UK. Meanwhile, manufacturing giants Nissan, Toyota and Airbus are all considering divesting.

Almost half of the UK’s exports are in manufacturing; what percentage will this drop to if we leave the EU? Two-thirds of our trade comes directly with EU countries and through EU free trade agreements with the rest of the world.

And what will happen to this country’s extraordinary research and development capabilities if manufacturing takes such a hit? Investment from manufacturing makes up 70% of the UK’s entire research and development spending; that is £15bn of R&D spending at stake.

The white paper will do nothing to alleviate these fears. Of more than 2.8 million people working in British manufacturing, almost 20% are foreign-born – three out of four of whom are from EU countries. With the average wage of a manufacturing worker in the UK sitting at £32,500, factory workers just below the threshold will be unable to work in the UK, disrupting production lines and supply chains.

But it is not just factory workers who will be turned away by these policies. For higher-paid workers, such as engineers, for whom the threshold is not a problem, the UK still becomes a far less attractive place to work, not to mention study.

This has been particularly stark since the two-year post-study work visa for international students was halted by the coalition government in 2012. Indian students looking to study in the UK have felt the brunt of this, with their numbers halving since 2010. Instead, they are going to countries such as Australia and Canada, who have attractive post-study work options.

The government’s post-Brexit immigration white paper was an opportunity to make it clear to international students from around the world, including Indian students, that they are welcome in Britain despite Brexit – a huge, missed opportunity.

While the white paper informally drops the unrealistic target of reducing net migration to below 100,000 people per year, it does not remove international students from net migration figures. International students are a jewel in the crown of Britain’s world-leading universities and keeping them within the net migration figures gives the perception that they are not welcome here, and provides no clear answers at all to the question of how the UK will secure its supply of international academics and students.

Furthermore, there are 130,000 EU students in the UK who are entitled to the lower rate of home student fees, student loans that home students are entitled to, and the right to stay on and work in the UK after their studies.

Last year, Indian-born Dr Rahul Mandal – an engineer at the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre – won The Great British Bake Off, saying that he wanted to get boys into baking and girls into STEM. It is sad that hostile immigration policies could prevent talented engineers like Rahul coming to the UK and sharing their skills in the future.

Supporters of leaving the EU, including those who would like Britain to crash out on WTO rules, harp on about Britain being able to strike trade deals with other countries once we have left the EU. This is such a flawed proposition – sacrificing nearly 70% of our trade that currently exists with and through the EU, let alone the difficulty of doing great bilateral trade deals.

India, for example, has only nine bilateral trade deals – not one with a western country. And, with Britain’s hostile immigration policy with regard to workers and students, plus the feeling that Indian students are being discriminated against compared with the Chinese who get far more favourable treatment, Britain can dream on about any potential trade deal with a country like India. 

Lord Bilimoria is a crossbench peer, founding chairman of the UK-India Business Council and chair of the Manufacturing Commission