Statistics published by the Office for National Statistics last week show that net migration fell by more than a third since June 2010 to 153,000 for the year to September 2012. 

The Home Office has also published statistics for the period January to March 2013 accompanied by a press release announcing that these ‘demonstrate that immigration abuse is being tackled, while we continue to encourage the brightest and best migrants, who contribute to our economic growth.’   The more detailed report behind this announcement (see GOV.UK) makes for interesting reading and whilst the Government may be on track to meet its net migration target of ‘tens of thousands’ by 2015, it is much less clear how the figures support its bold claims of clamping down on abuse and attracting top talent.   Although the press release refers to ‘a 5 per cent increase in the number of visas issued to skilled workers’ (referring to the period January to March 2013), the more detailed report reveals that ‘the 141,800 work-related visas issued in the year ending March 2013 was the lowest 12-monthly total recorded using comparable data available from 2005’.

Net migration can of course be influenced by a number of factors other than policy changes including recession, emigration and European free movement. What does seem clear, however, is that UK employers have borne the brunt of the policy changes implemented to try to achieve a reduction in net migration (regardless of how effective these changes have actually been).

There follows a summary of policy changes highlighting how employers seeking to employ skilled non-EEA migrant workers have been affected over the last 3 years:

  • June 2010 – the Government introduces an ‘interim’ cap with very little notice on Tier 1 (General) applications as well as the number of Certificates of Sponsorship (CoS) assigned to sponsors of Tier 2 (General) applicants for entry clearance visas and extensions of stay – panic ensues as many employers are prevented from sponsoring more than 1 or 2 non-EEA migrant workers over the next 9 months;
  • December 2010 - Tier 1 General (an immigration category based primarily on previous salary, age and qualifications) is closed to new applicants applying from outside the UK with the category closing to all new applicants from April 2011 – in effect, all non-EEA migrant workers in need of permission to work (with limited exceptions) must now be sponsored by a licensed UK employer;
  • April 2011 – an annual limit of 20,700 Certificates of Sponsorship is imposed for most out-of-country applicants to Tier 2 (General). Whilst the monthly limit is usually undersubscribed, sponsors must now go through an additional allocation process adding weeks to the visa sponsorship process for no good reason.
  • April 2011, the Tier 2 (Intra-Company Transfer) category is split into two sub-categories for short-term and long-term staff. Short-term staff can only remain for 12 months and are not permitted to extend their stay; long-term staff can be granted a maximum of three years and one month entry clearance visa, which can be extended up to five years. After this, the person can only return in this sub-category after a minimum of 12 months outside the country.
  • April 2012 – ‘Cooling off’ periods are introduced for all Tier 2 migrants who leave the UK without qualifying for settlement and who are then required to spend a period of 12 months outside the UK before they may reapply to enter in a Tier 2 category.
  • April 2012 – Tier 1 (Post Study Work) is closed to new applicants – in effect, non-EEA students who have graduated from a UK university must now be sponsored by a licensed UK employer.
  • April 2013 – further reductions in the number of skilled occupations that qualify for sponsorship as well as increased salary thresholds are imposed.

This does not even begin to explain the administrative burden of increasingly complex immigration rules, often incomplete guidance and onerous sponsor licence compliance duties, not to mention processing delays and the more or less impossible fight to get premium appointments to fast track in-country applications (the alternative being employees without passports who are unable to travel for months on end).  If part of the Government’s strategy to cut net migration has been to render the employment and sponsorship of non-EEA nationals too costly, time consuming and painful to pursue, then it’s a strategy that has been extremely effective. If it were in any way to help employers, it has been an abject failure.

The Queen’s Speech in May included reference to the forthcoming Immigration Bill, the focus of which (with some relief for businesses) seems to be enforcement and access to services rather than further restrictions on skilled workers (diligent employers have little to fear from the threat of increased penalties for illegal working).  However, the Bill is currently lacking in any detail and may well turn out to be just another politically-motivated blunt instrument developed (using the word loosely) without heed to the real requirements and experiences of UK and international businesses.  It therefore remains to be seen what further delights the Government has in store for those employers in its final push to meet the promised net migration target.