Dave Hill: New government migration curbs can only do London harm

Dave Hill: New government migration curbs can only do London harm

Usually, the public responses of London business groups to large government announcements are diplomatically hedged – combinations of gratitude for small mercies and polite expressions of ongoing disappointment. By contrast, the statement released by BusinessLDN following brand new Home Secretary James Cleverly’s revealing the Conservatives’ latest plans for reducing net migration was rather stark.

‘At a time when businesses in London and across the country are struggling with acute skills shortages, raising the salary threshold at which workers can be recruited from abroad would make it much harder for firms to access the talent they need to drive growth,” said policy delivery director Mark Hilton. The government should put the economics before the politics.”

London Higher, which represents the capital’s universities, has a similar predisposition to nuance and critical friendship. But it too took a dim view of Cleverly‘s prescriptions. Chief executive Diana Beech did not veil her displeasure with the threat to the post-study work visa – or “graduate immigration route” – which enables overseas students to stay on in the UK after securing a degree or better.

“What is needed for London and the UK to thrive is more promotion of the post-study work visa, not less,” she said. “Any moves to restrict or abolish [it] will be the final nail in the coffin for the illusion of ‘Global Britain’, with the UK already being seen as unwelcoming to international students following a swathe of recent regressive policy changes.”

Biff. Bash. Ka-pow. The dismay could hardly have been less varnished. OK, you might suspect that the expected coming demise of the Tories, probably by this time next year, has lessened inhibitions. But that doesn’t mean the cries of anguish weren’t from the heart.

And why wouldn’t they be? Important sectors of the capital are struggling to recruit the quantity and quality of staff they need. Inadequate training of Londoners contributes to this situation – plenty are seeking work, but don’t fit vacancies’ requirements – but that doesn’t change the fact that London employers in construction, hospitality and others have jobs on offer they need qualified people to do this very day.

London, you might have heard, is the place the whole country depends on for growth, demand and taxes. In spite of being hammered hard by the pandemic, it has been leading the nation out of it. Now, Rishi Sunak’s unpopular administration has chosen to place appeasing the disquiet of Brexit-minded Britons above the needs of the British capital and, by extension, of Britain as a whole.

Such sentiments, it should not be forgotten, are not absent from London itself. The 40 per cent of Londoners who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum were a heavily outnumbered minority, but a large one nonetheless. And while “Brexit identities”, like Brexit belief, have declined far and wide, that mindset is not extinct in Remain City.

Yet the recent, in-depth Lord Ashcroft poll – the one that gave Sadiq Khan a 27-point lead over his Conservative challenger Susan Hall, an admirer of Lee Anderson MP – also found that 61 per cent of Londoners believe that, overall, immigration has improved Britain compared with 39 per cent who think it’s made things worse. That’s a far more favourable balance than found in national surveys. And when asked to make their choice of the three most important issues for the country from a list of 21, 17 per cent of Londoners picked immigration – again, far from insignificant, but, in joint sixth position, not as elevated as it is in the thinking of Britons as a whole.

Call it decisive and responsible action to address legitimate concerns or call it pandering to prejudice and fear, the government’s new move on immigration has, of course, been informed by political calculation. It knows which parliamentary seats and which types of voters represent – forgive the analogy – lifeboats for their sinking electoral prospects and, by and large, they aren’t clustered in the capital. Perhaps it has also factored in the Migration Observatory’s cautious estimate that net migration was likely have to have dropped substantially in the next couple of years anyway, even without a major change of policy. If that happens, they will be able to boast of having arranged it.

Whatever, even if the Prime Minister’s headline-grabby gambit in this emotive realm can eventually be claimed to have paid off, it won’t do him much good in another area voters care about, a buoyant, growing economy, which only London can fuel. The latter now looks even further away, thanks to the impact the immigration ploy is expected by such as BusinessLDN and London Higher to have.

No surprise there. It’s been a while since London and Londoners were a Conservative priority, no matter how much harm that has done – including to everywhere else.

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