The government’s version of a points-based scheme is aiming to do all the things that an immigration policy ought not to do. Don Flynn explains why another car crash outcome is looming

Government announcements on their plans for new immigration policies have fallen into a definite rut. As soon as the words fell from the lips of the prime minister or home secretary, predictions began to be made of the policy disasters that we can be confident will ensue. Remember David Cameron’s “no ifs, no buts” pledge to bring net migration down from the hundreds to the tens of thousands? Or Theresa May’s declaration that there was going to be a hostile environment for so-called illegal migrants? All initiatives that ended considerably less than well.

The latest in this line comes in the form of the Johnson government’s points-based scheme (PBS) and how that supposedly will operate as a means to bring “the brightest and the best” to the UK.

The “further details” posted on the government website on Monday have shocked media commentators because of the failure to make any provision for at least one group of workers that everyone has become used to thinking of as the epitome of heroic key workers during the coronavirus pandemic: care workers.

Care worker crisis

With an industry-wide average annual wage in the region of £17,300, most care workers will fall well below the salary threshold of £25,600 which the PBS has set as the bottom line for the admission of migrant workers. It even falls below the “floor” of £20,480 which the scheme operates for special cases where there might be a shortage, in which nursing is already included.

The predominance of low wages across the industry is attributed to the financial strictures which affect local government’s ability to pay for the estimated 200,000 people across England who cannot afford to self-fund their residential care. (Funding for residential care in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is raised on a different basis but in all cases the amount paid by the authorities has been restricted by years of austerity.) As a result, care homes have huge, long-term difficulties in attracting the staff they need, with impacts that vary across the country. Partial relief has come in recent years from access to the migrant labour available in some regions – notably in London, where 38% of the workforce is provided by migrant people.

Even so, the industry representative, the National Care Forum, reports 122,000 hard-to-fill staff vacancies. The government appears to be unaware that the crisis that exists across the sector has been made worse by the austerity it has demanded over the course of the last decade. Incredibly, it is saying that the answer to this predicament will come from increasing entry-level wages and creating a better career progression structure for those who commit to long-time care work as careers. Care home employers are pretty well unanimous in saying they would love to pay more, but the strapped-for-cash reality of most businesses simply makes this impossible.

Management level recruitment

Monday’s home office announcement has added a further twist. Some degree of migrant recruitment to care homes will still be possible, but only for posts at senior care worker and management levels, where salaries are more likely to hit the minimum threshold. While this will help ease recruitment problems at that level, the casting of the care sector as a place where migrants are reasonably well represented at management and supervisor level, but the basic, low-paid care worker job is reserved for citizens or people with settled status, will not present the sector in a good light.

This illustrates a problem that shows up in other sectors as well. Farm and food processing work also has a workforce in which migrant people make up a large part of process level workers. While the PBS makes some provision for seasonal farm workers, this is below the level employers claim is needed. Wage levels here are largely determined by the rates the end users in the retail sector – basically the big four supermarkets – are prepared to pay for produce. Unless the likes of Tesco, Asda, Sainbury’s and Morrisons are prepared to increase what they pay the producers, and consequently up the prices paid by customers, then agriculture will remain a low-wage industry that is viewed as unattractive to people in the settled population.

Fatal defect

The PBS approach to immigration policy as framed by Johnson and his home secretary is fatally wounded by the claim made for its principal virtue: a system that will allow the UK to attract “the brightest and the best”. It provides employers with a route to recruit migrant people into the sorts of jobs which require A-level qualifications or above, but restricts options for filling positions below that level to people already settled in the country.  

It may take a year or so for people to catch on with what is happening here, but at some point it will be noted by aggrieved sections of the population that Jobcentre Plus is either pushing them towards jobs they regard as dead-end, or obliging them to compete with newcomers for what may well be a diminishing number of ‘decent’, career-style employment opportunities.  

Recent history suggests that whenever immigration is seen as producing outcomes that are unfavourable to settled people then it is the migrants, not the government, which gets blamed. The xenophobic ratchet turns up another notch, and the task of establishing what ought to be the plain fact that newcomers from outside the country are not responsible for low wages and lousy jobs becomes ever harder.

This new iteration of a points-based scheme has doom written into it from the start and, like their Tory predecessors, Boris Johnson and Priti Patel are blithely unaware of the chaos, rancour and discord that lies just down the line. If the Labour opposition doesn’t provide the clearest possible picture of the disaster that is looming just below the horizon, then the cycle of anger on the part of the people who perceive themselves to be ‘left behind’ will grow and grow.

If the idea that migrants are to blame takes root again, it will further alienate millions from the hope of a progressive immigration policy that works for both migrant people and citizens. We can’t afford to make that mistake again.      

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