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View from the Street: Electioneering with migration

A British flag waving on top of Westminster

Anna Dickens

Anna Dickens
Associate partner

Seven-and-a-half years on from the Brexit vote and with a general election around the corner, recently revised record high migration figures are leading the news agenda and spurring the UK government into action.

“Stop the boats” is a mantra we’ve all become familiar with, even if at times it feels like a rallying cry within the Conservative Party, rather than a message for those beyond it. Regardless, it doesn’t change the data that shows net migration has grown under the party’s watch and legal immigration has increased under its post-Brexit, points-based system.

Yesterday, former home secretary Suella Braverman wrapped up her resignation statement by speculating that the Conservative Party “faces electoral oblivion” if the government’s Rwanda Bill fails – wilfully ignoring the additional factors contributing to the electorate’s waning trust in the current administration and making it crystal clear she expects the Bill won’t withstand legal challenges. The immigration minister Robert Jenrick clearly shares that view, with his resignation – as the Bill was being unveiled – prompting the prime minister Rishi Sunak to call an urgent press conference today in an attempt to persuade voters his erstwhile colleagues are wrong and he is right.

However, to me, a statement by the current home secretary James Cleverly on Monday also felt like an admission that the Rwanda Bill won’t work. The announcement on legal immigration changes was right out of Theresa May’s hostile environment playbook on how to reduce net migration numbers. As home secretary of a European Union member – subject to free movement – the most reliable tool May had to cut net migration was to reduce legal immigration through an expensive and prohibitive process. The changes Cleverly announced on Monday are essentially May’s strategy on steroids, laying the groundwork to achieve some cuts in numbers against a potentially still unworkable Rwanda policy.

This is the view through the political lens. The other – human – way to view the policy is through the eyes of the individuals and business leaders whose lives and plans have been upended this week. The care sector has been vocal about the staff shortages it faces and how the changes to worker visa rules will make the many vacancies even harder to fill. The change also gives little assurance to other business leaders whose skilled roles are either on the shortage list or could be.

Then there are the people who just want to live with the person they love. From next spring, the spousal visa income threshold will more than double, to £38,700 a year. When I immigrated through the spousal visa route nearly a decade ago the £18,600 limit was tricky for my wife to meet as she was at the start of her career. If we were in the same situation now, we would be faced with the option of splitting up – unthinkable and unjust – or moving to my home country, the United States.

The ageism inherent in this income threshold, which is based on average earnings rather than the likelihood of needing to access public services, is likely to lead to a brain drain of young earners who, in a global environment, are increasingly likely to create families that cross borders. For this and numerous other reasons we can expect to see many of these changes challenged in court, but until they can be resolved a lot of people’s lives are in flux.