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Should immigration policy be decided regionally?


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Immigration policy is decided at a national level, meaning that the rules governing the entry of foreign nationals to the UK are almost entirely the same across the land.

The requirements, for instance, to be met by nurses under Tier 2 of the Points Based System are the same in Cornwall as they are in Carlisle, regardless of local staffing needs. The £18,600 minimum income required for British nationals to bring in a foreign spouse is the same in London – where it is enough to rent a lock-up and go out on a quarterly basis, for one beer – as it is in Llandudno.

Tier 1 entrepreneurs – who must create jobs for British or settled workers as a condition of their stay – must meet the prohibitive £200,000 capital requirement regardless of whether they plan on setting up in the north east (unemployment rate almost 6%), or the south east (3%).

The recent case of American entrepreneurs in Scotland (as reported on Free Movement last week) has led to calls for greater local control of immigration in Scotland – and not for the first time.

Aren’t regional immigration polices impossible?

A recent paper by the Migration Observatory suggests not.

The respected research group, based at the University of Oxford, makes the point that a regional system is certainly feasible where entry is tied to work and that right to work only exists in a particular area.

It would not mean internal borders or areas of the country to which migrants could not travel: simply that the right to remain would be tied to a job in a certain region.

The report stops short of calling for the introduction of any such system, concluding that

The main economic argument in favour of regional variation in the immigration system – that different policies should be responsive to different regions’ true economic needs – sounds intuitive but encounters the strong counterargument that it is simply too difficult to define what migration is ‘needed’ in an objective way at the subnational level… At the same time, regionalisation has a potential drawback in the form of higher costs of a more complex immigration system, although these costs are hard to quantify.

Markedly less ambivalent are the recommendations of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration, which reported over the summer. It argued rather loudly for a regionally led immigration system:

The introduction of such a system might bring about greater alignment between the economic needs of each part of the UK and immigrant settlement patterns, as policymakers with area-specific expertise could design immigration criteria closely matching the labour and skills requirements of their economies.

Crucially, it said, a regionally organised immigration system

would lend the settled population a greater sense of control over immigration policy decisions – serving to disrupt the sense that population change is foisted on communities by a distant metropolitan elite.

The report views the replacement of the current system not only as an economic imperative, but a political one.

Baby steps

It is not, of course, a zero-sum game.

It is possible to devolve aspects of national migration policy without entirely losing central control. Indeed, there are glimpses of this in the current system.

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There is, for instance, a Shortage Occupation List specifically for Scotland. Those Scottish employers who wish to employ a foreign national in one of the occupations on this list are not required to first advertise the role to a British or settled worker (as would normally be the case for any role not on the Shortage Occupation List).

In addition, the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa programme has a fast-track option for those making applications within the digital technology sector, and who will be employing their exceptional talent in Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield or Sunderland. But there is no relaxation in the substantive requirements of the route: merely an expedited application process.

Here, we see the Home Office dipping its toe into the waters of regional possibility. With the UK immigration system due for a substantial overhaul in the coming years, we shall see whether it takes the plunge.

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