March 5, 2012 10:11 pm

Minister seeks balance in borders debate

Damian Green’s brief to allow only the “brightest and best” migrants into the UK might sound like a simple idea but will be remarkably difficult to deliver.

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The immigration minister has spent his first two years in office battling pressure on multiple fronts, as net migration figures have stuck stubbornly around the 250,000 mark – 150,000 over the target Conservatives have promised to reach by 2015 – and businesses and the higher education sector have campaigned fiercely against barriers on their freedom to attract staff or students from abroad.

Mr Green has managed to prevent the opposition of Liberal Democrat coalition partners derailing his plans and is challenging the rightwing overtones of immigration control by suggesting it is a “progressive Conservative policy” that is helping Britain’s poorest.

“It is actually in some of the poor areas of our inner cities that you get these social tensions that are no good to anyone on either side of them,” he tells the Financial Times in an interview. “And relieving those tensions, therefore, is a policy to help some of the more disadvantaged areas of this country.”

Mr Green’s message is made more plausible by the fact that he is seen as one of the most moderate Tory ministers in David Cameron’s government. He was chosen as shadow immigration minister seven years ago precisely because the party needed someone who could talk about immigration and community cohesion without inflaming the debate or attracting criticism of the Tories as the “nasty party”.

Having dogged the Home Office tirelessly in opposition – he was arrested in 2008 over aleaks from the department – Mr Green is also persistent in government, perhaps too much so in the eyes of some in business and academia.

He is going ahead with reform on all categories of non-European Union migrants, including workers, students and those who come to the UK to join their families. The minister promises that net migration faces a “steady downward pressure” through the course of the parliament.

However, those who have analysed the new policies say the measures brought in so far cannot bring net migration down by the necessary amount.

When asked by the FT whether he will consider more radical and unpopular moves, such as capping the number of student entrants – which account for 40 per cent of migrant inflows – Mr Green does not rule this out. “We’ve got no proposals at the moment to put a numerical cap on students,” he says. “Well, it’s not on the table at the moment, no, it’s not. I mean, we will see.”

Business fears

Boris Johnson, London mayor, called it the “Pret A Manger phenomenon”, writes Brian Groom. Many commentators have asked why not only sandwich shops but businesses such as cafés, supermarkets and dry cleaners, particularly in the capital, appear largely staffed by foreigners while more than 1m young Britons are unemployed.

Academic studies have generally shown that any displacement of UK-born workers has been modest. But this is a hot political issue. Mr Johnson claimed some young people lacked the “energy” to get jobs, while ministers have repeatedly urged businesses to employ more British people. Lawyers say, however, that if they favour them over migrants who have a right to work in the UK, they risk claims of race discrimination.

Employment among UK-born workers has fallen by 760,000 to just over 25m since 2005, while the number of foreign-born people in employment has grown from 3m to 4.1m. Economists say this largely reflects the fact that immigrants are the growing part of the population. The share they take of all vacancies is closer to their population share.

The migration advisory committee, the government’s adviser, reported last month that immigration from outside the European Union over the past five years may have led to displacement of 160,000 jobs for British-born employees. The information technology, hospitality and retail sectors were most likely to have been affected. It found that EU migrants, including those from eastern Europe, did not displace jobs for the resident workforce.

Business leaders say young UK workers often lack the right skills and attitude. They urge ministers to continue to focus on reforming skills and education.

Employers fear the government’s migration curbs send out a signal to the rest of the world that skilled workers are unwelcome. Although the visa cap is undersubscribed by about 50 per cent, employers say procedures can be off-putting and fear the cap may bite as the economy picks up.

There is uncertainty too, over the new routes to UK entry Mr Green introduced to help lure the best talents from abroad. While the take-up of visas designed to encourage investors and entrepreneurs has doubled in the past year, the new “exceptional talent route” – designed for leaders in science, humanities, engineering and the arts, with a possible 1,000 visas allocated – has attracted only seven people.

“We are talking to the bodies that are actually doing the sponsoring, saying ... maybe you’re setting the bar too high,” the minister explains. “Obviously, these things are new and we will need to develop them.”

Aside from struggling to get the number of desirable migrants up and figures for less desirable ones down, there have been more immediate crises to handle on the operational side of the immigration brief.

The unauthorised relaxation of security checks at the UK Border Agency last summer prompted a sudden decision to split the agency into two parts, raising fears of turmoil before the Olympics. A forensic report into the breach by John Vine, the chief inspector of the border agency, found Mr Green had initially approved some of the loosened checks before the home secretary ordered them to be reinstated.

Despite initial fears among parliamentary allies that Mr Green might be in trouble over the episode, the minister has avoided ensnarement and is focused on driving the structural changes. “The UKBA needed a huge transformation exercise ... but actually two organisations with better focus, it’ll be easier to transform them more quickly,” he says.

Mr Green also promises a new automatic egates system to speed border passage for non-EU travellers who were dismayed at the phasing out of the Iris eye-scanning system. He is cagey, though, on whether it will be ready in time for the Olympics. “We’re still in the throes of negotiating when it will actually roll out ... but it will be in the course of the coming months, I think, is the best I can say.”

But Mr Green is clear that his main focus remains meeting the net migration target and convincing the public that immigration is under control.

He admits this will be tough, with no instant results. “We deliberately set ourselves a five-year target: we always knew that it was going to take the parliament because we could see the net migration figures rising,” he says. Searching for the appropriate cliché, he said it was like “turning around an oil tanker”.

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